Rivers finds new challenge for Celtics

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

NEWPORT, R.I. – Doc Rivers seldom indulges in his profession's serial, self-congratulatory practice of cold-calling coaching peers for advice and counsel. Sometimes, there's a sincerity to study the craft in reaching out to strangers, but more and more it's turned into an ego gratification, a chance to brag about those famous names on speed dial.

Hey, did you hear who considers me a worthy peer in the profession?

Did you hear who wanted me to tell him all about my genius?

"I'm not a big coach-caller," Rivers said. "Do you know what I'm saying there? Never have been."

The coach of the world champion Boston Celtics had to smile when he said, "So yeah, this summer was abnormal for me. I called a load of coaches."

There have always been coaching sages in Rivers' life, voices he could trust. He played for Pat Riley, who always sells people on the genius of his work. He played for Gregg Popovich, who always sells the genius of his players. Rivers has always been far more Pop than Riles, always taking his job far more seriously than himself.

Rivers turned down the chance to write his memoir and passed on several endorsement possibilities this summer. He was just happier traveling to AAU basketball tournaments to watch his son, Austin, play ball. Rivers loves coaching, but has never embraced the politics of the fraternal order. He's one of the game's finest gentlemen, but he's never embraced the glad-handing phoniness that comes with so-called stature.

This time, though, Rivers had a question that he wanted to pose outside his circle: After winning it all, what do you need to be most vigilant about when trying to win it all again?

Rivers talked to Hall of Fame basketball coaches Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens, who share his agent, Lonnie Cooper. Out of deference to name dropping, he talked to several more that will remain with him. He talked to a lot of football coaches, too. Celtics courtside regular Bill Belichick had to be one, but Rivers was too sheepish to say for sure. Looking back, he ended up talking most with football coaches. They just had so much to tell him.

"The football coaches were a more impressive group for me," Rivers said. "They have more players to try and snap back into a season. Football has 30 guys coming back from that last year. They have a bigger group of guys to motivate, to look for different problems."

Across all the coaches, across conversations with several great ex-champion players, Rivers was delivered a common thread of caution. Somehow, you've got to get your role players to return to the mindset of, well, role players.

"They're on trophy tours all summer," Rivers said. "They're going to dinners. They're making appearances for $10,000. Now you've got to ask them to go set a pick and rebound. It's easy to get out of that role. I thought the reason we were good last year was because our role guys played their roles as well as anyone's in the league."

Rivers lost his ultimate bench weapon, James Posey, to the New Orleans Hornets. Posey wanted to stay, but the Hornets guaranteed him four years and $25 million. The Celtics offered half of that. Now, Rivers goes back to work developing the next generation out of a stable of intriguing, but raw young players.

Across the shortest summer of Rivers' basketball life, the biggest change of becoming a championship coach had to be the way people always stopped to tell him all about the biggest shot, the biggest play, the biggest reason of the title run. They never brought up the moment that stayed with Rivers through the NBA Finals, through the summer, and all the way to training camp this week.

"After you win it," Rivers said, "you realize how really hard it is to win a championship. You've got to get the right calls. You've got to have guys in the right spots. And sometimes, you have to get to a loose ball."

He thinks about a jump ball. He thinks about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the Cleveland Cavaliers' 7-foot-3 center, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, reaching over Posey to tip the ball to LeBron James with a minute left and the Cavs within three points. The Celtics had a drill they always did in practice called "First to the floor," and it was just an old-fashioned way to practice beating a man to the ball. Whatever it takes, get the loose ball. Superstars, bench players – no one sat it out. No one was exempt.

Pierce wedged his way between James and the ball and snatched it away. In that instance, the Celtics had never been closer to losing that championship.

The way everyone else thinks about destroying the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6, the champagne celebration and the parade through Boston, Rivers still thinks a lot about that passage of time in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. It reminded him all over again about the need to drill and drill and drill on the little things, to embrace the belief that the genius is in the details.

"I don't know if Cleveland would've won or not, but if they got to that loose ball, they could've won," he said. "Except that we practiced that all year. – It's something we talked about all year. To me, that was the little thing that won it. We drilled it and Paul was first to the floor like we always talked about.

"It's amazing. That might have been the difference."

When the Celtics returned to training camp, Rivers made clear to his Big Three this season's calling card. Yes, they had gone into the rafters as champions here and that was forever. "But I told them, 'We are with the Boston Celtics and if you want to be part of the conversation, you have to win more than one. With some other franchise you can probably live off this one for 20 years. But we are in Boston and it's different.' "

So when Rivers walked into the gymnasium at Salve Regina University for the first practice of the season on Tuesday morning, surprise, surprise: Four players had beaten everyone else to work, and three of them were named Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

"And I'm thinking, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " Rivers said.

Rivers ripped into the rest of his players and he was on his way. What was wrong with this picture? Deep down, a championship coach didn't need to use a lifeline to understand the truth: Nothing at all.

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