LAS VEGAS — They sat next to each other like old buddies do, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who made magic in Boston six years ago, chatting while watching the Clippers’ summer league entry at Thomas & Mack Center.
The subject that always seems to surface when these close friends talk basketball? The 2010 NBA Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, a series the Celtics led three games to two before dropping the final two, including giving away Game 6 in a listless 89-67 defeat.
That topic is discussed much more frequently between the two coaches than the 2008 championship. And Rivers freely acknowledged 2010 lingers in his basketball psyche, even though he parted ways with the Celtics last season and is now trying to lead the once-downtrodden Clippers to prominence.
While Rivers was all smiles this week in Las Vegas, the Clippers’ Western Conference semifinals loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder remains distressing. The Clippers had a juicy opportunity to take a commanding three games to two lead before blowing a 13-point lead with four minutes left in a game that was dampened by a pair of controversial calls.
The Thunder then sealed the series with a win at Los Angeles in Game 6, ending Rivers’s bid to return to the NBA Finals and leaving him with much left to accomplish as the team’s president of basketball operations. Unlike his time with the Celtics, where Rivers could only make suggestions to Danny Ainge about roster moves, Rivers is in charge in LA. He makes the decisions.
So far, coach-general manager Rivers has signed center Spencer Hawes to a four-year contract and guard Jordan Farmar to a two-year deal to replace Darren Collison, who departed for the Sacramento Kings. What’s hilarious about Rivers is that he mentioned Farmar won one NBA title with the Lakers: “He had two but we don’t count the one year .”
His new role was one he wanted but the Donald Sterling situation forced him into being the face of the franchise during troubling times. The Clippers still don’t have an owner, although Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer, whose $2 billion bid for the team is currently being decided in a Los Angeles court, sat next to Rivers courtside.
Free agency has been difficult for Rivers because he is the lone representation for the organization because the ownership situation remains in limbo.
“The great thing in Boston is Danny and I did so many things together,” Rivers said. “You kind of knew what you wanted to do. That part of it was pretty easy. The second part of it was just trying to get it right, trying to figure out our culture. That’s still a process [in Los Angeles].”
Rivers believes the Clippers were just beginning to understand his philosophies and structure during the Oklahoma City series. The Clippers have a young and hungry team and Sterling finally opened up his wallet — before opening up his mouth — and rewarded Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with contracts to become a title contender.
The pressure is on Rivers to build a roster to overcome San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Memphis, and that is an arduous task.
“Even though we won a lot of games, I never felt like we had [everything down],” Rivers said of his first season. “Then you could see us starting to become the team we knew we could become and it just felt like we ran out of time.”
It seems Rivers enjoys being the front man in Los Angeles, but desires a resolution to the Sterling issue.
“That’s hurt us some,” he said. “You go in and talk to free agents, most of the teams are bringing in their owner. I go in looking [casual] by myself. I don’t know what effect that’s had but that’s not been great for us. The good news is even though there’s a lot of stuff with the court case, we’ve worked as a group. We haven’t stopped working.”
Rivers did not want to participate in the rebuilding of the Celtics, but there are even more expectations in Los Angeles because he wanted this responsibility. After the Game 6 loss to Oklahoma City, he was left to explain why he and the team failed in their quest for a magical title run.
So while he is smiling, slapping hands with Thibodeau, chatting with Ballmer, Rivers fully realizes his crucial role in turning the Clippers into an elite team and he embraces the challenge.
“There’s no doubt [we’re trying to dethrone the champion Spurs], that’s what we’re in it for,” he said. “The West is a monster. From a coaching standpoint, we made mistakes [last season] and that haunts you for the summer. Forget the players, the coaches think about what could we have done different. Coaches take losses forever. That’s what we do, it’s a love-misery job and you just want to keep getting better.”