BOSTON — Among NBA players, both on the Celtics and throughout the league, Doc Rivers might be the most popular coach around. He reputation for instilling accountability while turning even the most mundane practices into entertaining competitions is well-known throughout the league, which may explain why players polled last season named Rivers as the coach they would most like to play for.
Being respected does not mean Rivers is always well-liked, though. After Rivers accused his team of being soft in Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, very few Celtics players were singing his praises.
Two days later, with Rajon Rondo serving the first game of his two-game suspension, several players acknowledged that Rivers’ accusation stuck in their craws. The unfortunate victim of the Celtics’ irritation at their coach was the Portland Trail Blazers, who were blitzed early and often in a runaway 96-78 Boston victory on Friday.
“Numerous times we’ve been mad at Doc,” Celtics guard Courtney Lee said. “I mean, he’s the coach. Whatever he says is the right way. It’s his way or the highway. We really can’t do too much about it, even if we’re right. We’ve still got to listen. We always get mad at him. I think him calling us soft, we took it personally, so we wanted to come here and compete. Now we’ve got to make sure we do that night-in and night-out.”
Lee started in Rondo’s place and finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists while putting in a stupendous defensive effort against Damian Lillard and the rest of Portland’s backcourt. Jason Terry scored 17 points and Jeff Green again flashed some of his occasional moments of forcefulness to lead Boston with 19 points.
Rivers commended Green, Lee and the rest of the Celtics for being aggressive, but the Celtics admitted they did not have much of a choice. Rondo, their safety blanket, was missing, so their best chance of winning lay in ramping up their intensity on offense and defense. Rivers tinkered with the defensive game plan, opting to trap the point guard harder on pick and rolls than the Celtics normally do. With Lee extending his pressure on Lillard well outside the 3-point line, the dynamic rookie point guard posted his fourth straight uneven game and finished with only eight points and three assists.
One player who did not seem put off by Rivers’ “soft” comment was Paul Pierce. The Celtics’ captain scored 12 points and watched the final 14 minutes, 44 seconds from the bench, getting valuable rest for the second leg of the back-to-back in Milwaukee on Saturday. The longest-tenured Celtic denied Rivers’ words had any effect on him, although he could not speak for his teammates.
“I’m a true believe that you should go out and play and be motivated regardless,” Pierce said. “As an NBA competitor, you shouldn’t need anybody to go out here and motivate you. Maybe some guys took it as motivation. I’m motivated by the opportunity to come out here and compete night in and night out. Whatever’s going to get guys going, if that’s what it was, hopefully then can build on that and continue to do that throughout the season.”
Fifteen years into his NBA career, though, Pierce has proved to be a different animal. He may be as close to a “lunch pail” star as exists in the league, part of a declining breed across all professional sports, not just basketball. Not every person can generate the same inner motivation as he can — otherwise, everybody would be a surefire Hall of Famer like himself.
For the rest of those guys, Rivers threw down the gauntlet. Many of them were not happy about it, but in contrast to what might happen if this were Los Angeles, they responded rather than revolted. While the Celtics players were not entirely pleased with their coach, the result of their anger certainly pleased him on Friday.