MIAMI - There is Red . . . and then there is Doc.
Doc Rivers is moving up the ranks toward becoming the second-greatest coach in the history of the Celtics, and this is his finest job in eight years on the Boston bench.
He only has one championship in his pocket, and he is not going to win another one this year, but the 2011-12 season goes down as Doc’s masterpiece, and I’m comfortable anointing him as second only to Red Auerbach in Celtic coaching lore.
Red won nine championships from the bench, including the last eight in a row. He was so good and so arrogant, he was able to hang up his whistle at the age of 48. He put the NBA on notice, saying, “This is your last chance to beat me, boys.’’ And nobody could beat him.
Tommy Heinsohn was a great Celtics coach. Underrated as a player, Heinsohn is perhaps even more unappreciated for what he did on the bench after Bill Russell, Sam Jones & Co. retired after the 1969 championship spring. Tommy has become a cartoon character in his role as a television analyst, but let the record show that he presided over the first great rebuilding job in team history. He built from the ruins of Russell’s retirement and had the Celtics back on top in 1974 and again in 1976.
In my view, Heinsohn is Doc’s top competition for second-greatest Celtics coach. K.C. Jones won two championships, but the mid 1980s team had four Hall of Famers in their prime. K.C. was smart enough to stay out of the way. He never had to do what Doc did this year.
Bill Fitch is underrated as a Celtic coachs and was calling out the plays when Red the GM did his second great rebuilding job in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Fitch won a championship with a second-year Larry Bird in 1981, but ran the fellows too hard and packed his bags after the Celtics were swept from the playoffs by the Bucks in 1983.
The only other Celtic coach to win a championship was Russell himself, the first black coach in US professional sports and a two-time champion. Russell is getting his overdue statue, but we can’t put him in the pantheon of Celtic coaching greats. He coached them for only three seasons and could not have won without himself at center.
Rick Pitino isn’t getting any votes here today, and as much as we like Chris Ford, he is not going to crack the top five, either.
Rivers got his championship in 2008 and almost won another in 2010, but he has never had to do as much as he’s done this year. He has won with old guys who don’t rebound. He has won with multiple injuries. He has won with Kevin Garnett at center and Ray Allen coming off the bench. Now he is winning without Avery Bradley.
He has gotten to the Eastern Conference finals with Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Pietrus, Ryan Hollins, and Keyon Dooling as his first four guys off the bench.
Oh, and should we perhaps mention that Rivers is probably the only coach who could handle the wildly talented, pouty, and thoroughly unpredictable Rajon Rondo?
“We had a lot of stuff thrown at us this year, starting with Jeff Green,’’ Rivers said before Monday night’s 93-79 Game 1 thrashing at the hands of the obviously superior Heat. “Paul starts the season not right. Kevin was not right to start the season. I really thought that they never thought they wouldn’t be here.
“During the All-Star break, nothing was going right for us. This was a grind of a season in a lot of ways, but it’s been an enjoyable one in the same way.’’
The Celtics staggered after the lockout but got better during the goofy, shortened regular season. They went 12-5 in March and 10-5 in April. They had the NBA’s best record in the second half of the season.
Things started to go their way when Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose were taken out of the playoffs. A path to the Finals was cleared, and the Celtics had enough old talent and guile to dispense with the young, athletic Hawks and 76ers. Now the path is blocked by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and it looks like the sand soon will run out on the Celtics season.
We all know this is a bonus year for the Big Three. The Celtics are playing with house money. They made it all the way to the conference finals and, theoretically, have a chance to play for the NBA championship in a couple of weeks.
It’s not going to happen, but because of Rivers, there are moments when you wonder. The Celtics never led in Miami Monday but four times pulled even with the Heat. The game was 50-50 with eight minutes left in the third.
Unbelievable. Rivers had this tired, broken-down team tied with the Heat with less then 20 minutes left on the clock.
Red would be loving this. It’s the Celtics against the Heat, the refs, and the world. Boston basketball is once again well-represented by a selfless band of overachieving warriors, and we have the coach to thank for the Big Three’s impressive farewell tour.
Happily, Rivers is signed for another four seasons. He will be the man in charge for the next rebuilding phase of this great organization. Wish Red were here to see what Doc is doing now.