WALTHAM, Mass. — Paul Pierce was in street clothes, while Rajon Rondo shuffled around in flip-flops. On their one-day break between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were not about to be mistaken for the Richmond High School boys basketball team engaging in one of the grueling practices from Coach Carter.
Days off are almost precisely that for the Celtics, and that is a rarity in the NBA. Few teams actually experience a day off during the season, with practices or film sessions taking up hours from any day without a game.
Doc Rivers elects for a different approach with his roster of seasoned players, many of whom are on the upper side of 30 years old. Rivers once led a scrappy, up-tempo squad in Orlando, but more than a decade later he opts for a more conservative approach. The Celtics held one practice during their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers and have not had a full practice session since.
Maybe that limits the amount of fine-tuning the Celtics can do with their offensive sets or the minutia of their defensive philosophy, but to Rivers the trade-off of having fresh bodies compensates for a player missing a detail here or there from a shortage of practice time.
"The way I look at it, if I have a choice between the legs and the brains, I'm going to take the legs every single time," Rivers said Saturday at the team's practice facility. "We need those. I don't know what we would accomplish, honestly, by bringing them in here [the day after a game]."
Like Gregg Popovich, his counterpart with the San Antonio Spurs, Rivers goes to great lengths to preserve aging stars like Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Rondo is only 26, but he plays so many minutes that he also benefits from the time off. Whereas Popovich limits the playing time of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili during actual games — occasionally sitting his stars for entire games in back-to-backs — Rivers merely manages minutes in-game and save his players' legs from the practice floor.
Do not mistake a shortage of practice with a lack of preparation altogether, though. In lieu of traditional, three-hour practices, the Celtics opted to use morning shootarounds on game days as miniature practices during the condensed regular season. As Pierce says, "We practice every game day." The Celtics often review and walk through halfcourt sets, which are less taxing on the bodies than up-and-down, full-court running.
Yet none of that would work if the players were not responsible for doing what they needed to do to prepare for games. Even when no practice is scheduled, most of the players come in to shoot, do cardio or get treatment from the training staff. Few sit at home playing Call of Duty all day, and if they do, they probably are not long for the league anyway.
"Guys tend to stay sharp on their own," Pierce said. "We're a veteran team. We've been together. Our core's been together for a few years now, so we kind of had a jump coming into training camp on teams that made a lot of moves [in the offseason]."
While the players rest, the coaches do not. Rivers and his staff review video for hours, especially during the playoffs, when the margin for error is slim. The coaches take suggestions from players, but only for team adjustments, not individual adjustments, because "when you want to make an adjustment, it's usually because your guy is kicking your ass," Rivers jokes. He solicits input from his players, particularly Rondo, during games, because he believes the players often have a better feel on the court than he does on the sideline. But Rondo is loath to offer unsolicited advice to the person he calls "the best coach in the league."
"I put in tips here and there, but I don't try to overstep my boundaries," Rondo said. "He's the one watching film six, seven hours, him and his coaches, before we even come to shootaround. I make little suggestions, but obviously they've watched film four or five times and I've only watched it once. They know what to look for and that's his job."
Garnett, who stresses the importance of fending off the mental effects as well as the physical consequences of fatigue, has seemed to be neither enamored nor disgusted with the primarily practice-free schedule. When it works, it works, he shrugged Saturday, and therein may lay the key to Rivers' approach.
Another coach, one who did not have a championship, two NBA Finals appearances and a Coach of the Year Award on his resume, might not be able to pull back on the reins like Rivers. A lesser coach than Popovich certainly would have lost his hide for resting Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker for a game in Utah in early April, costing the Spurs team their 11-game win streak. With success comes leeway.
Going without a single practice in the conference finals might get many coaches labeled as "soft." Rivers has done just that and is called "smart." No matter who the coach was, though, pushing a team stacked with 30-somethings would be downright foolhardy. The movies might glorify coaches who demand sprints until their players puke, but in real life, sometimes the practical strategy is to give the guys a day in flip-flops and street clothes.