Doc Rivers is a pretty good coach, and quite a lot better than many NBA observers realize.
When the conversation turns to the top three to five coaches in the NBA, the Celtics’ head man seldom comes up, and that is fine. One of the best coaches to ever don a John Deere mesh-back hat, Jerry Sloan, coached for more than 21 seasons without ever getting a whiff of NBA Coach of the Year consideration.
Still, Rivers is often overshadowed by peers such as Stan Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Mike D’Antoni, while falling just outside the stratosphere inhabited solely by Gregg Popovich. Rivers stands alongside Rick Carlisle as coaches who are so reliably shrewd that fans tend to forget about their clever moves and focus on their few errors.
In the Celtics’ uninspiring loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday, it became clear that this series will test Rivers’ coaching abilities like never before. If the Celtics somehow unseat the defending conference champs or even manage to push them to six or seven games, it would be difficult to keep Rivers out of the discussion of the league’s best bench bosses. Rivers will have to coach, and get his remaining healthy players to play, like never before.
For the first time in five years, the Celtics have a clear deficit in talent compared to their foe. Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo hold obvious advantages over the Heat’s big men and point guards, respectively, but with other positions decimated by injuries, the Celtics will find it hard to match the Heat player-for-player. Even Mike Miller, the NBA’s version of the walking undead, appeared to have an edge over Mickael Pietrus in Game 1, which does not bode well for the Celtics as the series moves forward.
With no Avery Bradley, a gimpy Ray Allen and a thin bench, Rivers will need to find a way to deploy the troops he has left in a way that somehow negates Miami’s personnel advantages. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are likely to be so much better than anything the Celtics can counter with at their positions, so Boston must find a way to win in other areas.
Rivers made at least one interesting move with his lineup and at least one other with his game plan on Monday. I say “at least” because there may have been numerous others that simply did not register in my small mind.
The personnel wrinkle was using Pietrus and Keyon Dooling alongside Garnett, Allen and Rondo. That unit, with its obvious basis on stretching the Heat’s defense away from Garnett in the post, was far from dominant, but they managed to play within a point of the Heat in their five minutes together on the court. That was more than could be said for the Celtics’ more traditional lineup of Garnett, Allen, Rondo, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass.
Rivers also turned to a zone defense in the second half, when it became evident that the Celtics could not matchup player-to-player with Miami over time. The move will not go down in the annals of brilliant coaching moves because it did not spark a game-winning run, but it showed that the Celtics coaches were thinking and willing to make a change in the course of the game. The next step is to see what adjustments they can make before Game 2 on Wednesday.
Rivers is one of only four NBA coaches still drawing things up in actual games, so that alone puts him in rare company. Making this series competitive will take more than a few nice plays drawn up on the grease board, though.
The Celtics are short-staffed and face long odds. This series may test Rivers’ coaching aptitude like none before.