James and Rivers clutched arms as James spoke into Rivers’ ear, spending far more time sharing his thoughts than the usual “good game” warrants.
James told ESPN’s Doris Burke in his postgame interview that he was complimenting the Celtics coach for how well he prepared his team. The Boston squad had gone far beyond everyone’s expectations in the postseason, dragging back a year that could have been felled by injury and age and almost turning it into an NBA Finals run.
James’ attention to Rivers and how he kept the Celtics contending this year is interesting to note, considering the recent NBA past.
When James first left Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami two years ago, the feeling was that he was chasing his own Big Three, like the Celtics team that won it all in 2008 after a speedy assembly in the summer of 2007.
The Cavs had tried to make it work with James and a supporting cast, but it was never enough. As James fell to a Celtics team that had three-pronged star power, he saw up close what it would be like if he could chase a championship with some help.
Two years later, James and Miami are on their second try toward the instant title. They’ve been vilified by fans and critics, but more importantly, they’ve shown great trouble in getting their team to function anything like the champion Celtics. James, Wade and Bosh couldn’t play together at first. Then it was a question of who would take the last shot. Bosh disappeared, and then he cried. The supporting cast was barely helpful, and management couldn’t rebuild it much, with little cash left over from the big free-agent pickups.
James is still working toward that Big Three goal, but as he took time to compliment Rivers on Saturday, perhaps the King was realizing something. Maybe that thing he was pursuing when he left the Cavaliers — when he thought joining with a Garnett and an Allen or a Pierce would solve it all — maybe what he was actually chasing the whole time was a certain Doc Rivers.
Few know all of the rigors that go into coaching in the NBA. It’s not just X’s and O’s and crunch-time decisions — it’s also a special blend of player management, utilizing talent in the right time and places, and balancing egos and personal ambition to get the best out of a team.
The Heat were a far different picture than the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and plenty of those watching were quick to point to the differences. Miami was accused of getting little from its bench or its guys not playing together. Coach Erik Spoelstra was said to not know how to get the most out of his stars, or how to get them in rhythm with each other. The team didn’t have a winning spirit, critics said, and the players didn’t have the same understanding as the Celtics of what had to be done to conquer adversity.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were the perfect picture of talent and experience used well. Despite loads of injuries and rickety stars, they played up to their collective ability. They found ways to buckle down when needed and overachieved again and again.
Anyone watching the Celtics over the past five years knows that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo did not get that way by accident. From deliberate speeches about “ubuntu” to Rivers coaxing and coaching each player uniquely, Boston has become an example of how odd-shaped parts can be melded into a beautiful machine. At any point since Garnett and Allen came to town, egos could have ravaged the team, Rondo’s attitude could have become too much, the bench could have been too thin and scores of other problems could have ripped apart the band of All-Stars. But Rivers was an overall master coach. He led the team well during games, but he also took care of each player and the team spirit as a whole.
He has a championship and change left over from it.
Earlier this season, Rivers looked like he was trying to hold together a train wreck, while other coaches, like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, seemed to have a far better handle on building a contender out of spare parts and old stars. But each time the Celtics won, Rivers’ coaching pedigree grew. This isn’t a guy who was in the right place at the right time when Danny Ainge landed a trio of stars and got him an underrated point guard. This is a Hall of Fame coach who got everything out of his team that he possibly could — year after year.
Miami’s Spoelstra has talent of his own, and he has years to learn more and prove himself. This isn’t a knock on him.
But in an NBA era where getting a Big Three seems to be the goal of any team trying to contend (see Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony), maybe James has noticed what everyone else should. Maybe it’s not as much about the raw talent and salaries that are packed on a court, but the magic that gets put into molding them together.
Wade, James and Bosh have enough talent to win it all, and they have enough of a team ethos that they can become the type of tight-knit group they need to be. But their struggles show that what Boston did in 2008 was truly special, and the man who took the Celtics there was one of a kind.
The stars and role players have heaped praise on Rivers, an affection shown on his tearful face as the final minutes ticked off in Miami and the coach pulled his stars. He loves his guys, and they love him back, not only for the support he provides but for the results he can bring.
The Celtics have known it for years, and the league has been catching on. As James strode across the court Saturday night, maybe that was when he wanted to say he got it, too.
His eyes weren’t on a Big Three — they were fastened firmly on the coach.