As Doc Rivers returns to TD Garden for the third time since departing the Celtics after nine seasons, the sentiments toward him by Celtics fans have changed.
The first time he returned, Dec. 11, 2013, the Garden crowd showed some resentment toward Rivers, feeling he left the organization when the Big Three era was imploding. Last season, feelings toward Rivers were tempered because Brad Stevens has been such a sparkling successor and the Celtics were rapidly improving.
On Wednesday, perhaps Rivers will be asked whether he regrets leaving Boston for the bright lights of Hollywood and the lure of bringing the Clippers to prosperity.
In Rivers’s first two seasons in LA, the Clippers lost in the Western Conference semifinals, first thumped by the Thunder and then choking away a 3-1 series lead to the Rockets.
Last summer, Rivers had to make a last-minute plea to DeAndre Jordan to return after he committed to signing with the Mavericks. And this season, Rivers has been without Blake Griffin since Christmas Day, the result of a torn quadriceps as well as a broken hand from punching a team employee (which will keep him out at least another month).
With Steve Ballmer paying a record $2 billion for the team prior to last season, there is immense pressure to win. Rivers is still as smooth and savvy as before, but he fully realized the job would be challenging.
Griffin is facing sanctions from the league as well as the Clippers.
“Really, it’s nothing you want to go through,” Rivers said of the Griffin situation. “You learn that they’re still young. They’re still learning. It’s not anything you want to go through as a team but you keep remembering that they’re young guys that are in the spotlight and it doesn’t take but a minute or two minutes and something happens.
“Blake’s a great guy and so is Matias [Testi, the assistant equipment manager involved in the altercation]. They both are great guys. They just had a bad moment and unfortunately it affects the team and there’s consequences to it. It hurts your team when it happens but it’s also somehow you’ve got to find a way of making a good experience, where you can teach the young guys and then you can get better as a team.”
Rivers joined a team ready for championship contention, with perennial All-Star Chris Paul alongside Griffin and Jordan. The Celtics, meanwhile, were starting fresh after trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on draft night in 2013.
It was supposed to be a smooth transition for Rivers, but he has found himself playing counselor, mentor, and life coach with his new Big Three.
“You’re probably being all of them at this point,” he said. “You’re being a coach first because your job is still to get the team to function and then you become a life coach. But I don’t have all the answers. I make as many mistakes as these guys. I’m human, too. But I tell them about the mistakes I made, the mistakes I still make. I tell them you’ve got to stay in life and hang in there and good things will happen.”
The Clippers went 15-4 in their first 19 games without Griffin. Rivers is hoping there is some silver lining to the Griffin situation because it has damaged the reputation of the organization.
“The knee injury he had would have been a nagging injury the rest of the year and now because he can’t play, when he comes back, he’ll be 100 percent,” Rivers said. “The other thing is we knew we wanted to play small, that’s why we created this team. We wanted to have two units and honestly, we were failing at the small-ball part because we never committed to it.
“This forced us to commit to it. We knew we can play big. When Blake comes back and we have both units, I think it’s going to make us really good.”
When asked how he has changed as a coach since leaving Boston, Rivers said, “I’m more patient. I just think you get more patient each year as a coach. You have to coach differently with this group. In Boston, we had that veteran group, you coached them but it was more team building. Here? You have to coach them. But this is a more lethal offensive team. We run more. We never ran this much in Boston but we didn’t have the personnel. You evolve as a coach, you have to change, too.”
The Clippers are fourth in the Western Conference behind Golden State, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. Their chances of making a serious title run are unlikely.
“There’s no reward for being in the West,” Rivers said. “Every once in a while I glance at the standings and see who we would play in the first round. There’s no breaks. I’ve gotten used to that.”
And Rivers realizes there is heavy criticism of himself as the team’s general manager. Some of his moves have been successful — Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick — while others have failed — Josh Smith, Spencer Hawes, Jared Dudley.
“None of it matters unless you win,” Rivers said. “If you win, you’ve done a good job. If you don’t win, you’ve got to do a better job. Danny [Ainge] was so good to work with because he would do stuff you wanted to do. It’s not like it’s that big of a difference [being a GM].
“The pressure is normal to me. That’s why we came here. It’s no different than Boston. In Boston you wanted to win the title every year. This team, I want them to win the title. We’ve got work to do.”
NO SMALL PRAISE
All-Star Thomas has some big fans
Isaiah Thomas accomplished one of his career goals by making his first All-Star Game, and the perception of him around the league has changed from a pint-sized, shoot-first guard to a floor leader and go-to guy. TNT studio analysts Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley offered their opinions on Thomas and other undersized players they’ve encountered.
Barkley: “[Thomas] deserves to make the All-Star team. I don’t think he’s doing anything different than [what he did] in Sacramento and Phoenix. He’s been playing well. The only difference is he’s on a winning team now. He is instant offense. He reminds me a little bit of [former Piston] Vinnie Johnson. He’s come in with one idea: He’s going to get [the ball] up. He’s getting [field goal attempts] and he deserves to make the All-Star team. He’s their closer and it’s well deserved for that little man.”
“Isiah Thomas is probably the greatest little man up there with John Stockton and Allen Iverson. I don’t think [Isaiah] is on their level, don’t get me wrong. But as far as you need instant offense, he’s doing it right now.”
Smith: “I always say there’s about 10 guys in the NBA, regardless of what team they play on, they’re going to be superstars and they’re All-Stars. And then there’s everybody else who needs to find a system that really works with them. In Boston and their coaching staff, [Isaiah] has found a system that works for him. It makes everything he does very valuable.
“I’ve seen Jamal Crawford play with the Clippers and [it’s been] valuable, and I’ve seen him play in other places where it hasn’t. Isaiah Thomas is very valuable with the Boston Celtics. A great job by that coaching staff to understand what he does and not limit him.
“The toughest little man I ever played against was Muggsy Bogues. He was able to change the game on both ends of the court because of being able to push the pace and his passing ability, as well as his defense at 5-foot-3, making guys not be able to dribble the basketball around you and being delegated to a one- or two-dribble game.”
O’Neal: “[Thomas is] a very exciting player. He brings excitement back to the game in Boston. We don’t agree with his shot selection sometimes towards the end of games but he’s doing fabulous right now. I just hope the team gets home-court advantage [in the playoffs]. Well deserved for him to make the All-Star team. I wish he had a few more inches because once they make it to the playoffs, he’ll probably be a little bit easier to guard because of his size, double him up off pick-and-rolls and he’ll have to give up the ball. We’ll see how effective he’ll be coming back to get the ball.
“Probably the most memorable little guy I played with was Chris Jackson [at LSU] but I wouldn’t call that little because I’m used to playing with big guards. Jackson was on fire.”
RULE OF THE GAME
Lue appointment went by the book
NBA commissioner Adam Silver had no choice but to name Tyronn Lue the coach of the Eastern Conference All-Star team, because league rules state the coach of the conference’s leading team must coach in the All-Star Game.
One exception is a coach can’t be given the task two seasons in a row; that’s why Gregg Popovich, and not Steve Kerr, is coaching the West squad this year.
Here is the NBA’s rule for coaching in the All-Star Game, according to league bylaws:
Coaches — The head coaches whose teams have the best records in each conference following the Sunday games played two weeks prior to the All-Star Game will serve as All-Star Game head coaches. In the event two or more teams are tied for the best record in a conference following the Sunday games played two weeks prior to the All-Star Game, such tie will be broken utilizing the criteria set forth below:
1) Better winning percentage in games against each other (or in all games among the tied teams when more than two teams are tied).
2) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.
3) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents (“point differential”).
4) Coin flip.
The head coach brings his own assistant or assistants who have served in the role of bench coaches, with a maximum of three.
No head coach is allowed to participate in two consecutive All-Star Games.
So Silver had to abide by the rules, despite Lue having coached the Cavaliers for only three games before being named East coach.
Lue replaced the fired David Blatt on Jan. 22.
Nelson’s job is to nurture Nuggets
It’s been just over a year since the Celtics traded Jameer Nelson to the Nuggets to appease his desire for more playing time. Denver missed the playoffs, but Nelson emerged as a team leader.
Nelson signed a three-year deal with Denver in the offseason and, under new coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets have continued to rebuild with a younger core and the hopes of attracting a major free agent this summer.
Nelson has brought stability to the point guard position and worked with rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, one of the more gifted young players in the NBA.
“It’s good to see guys getting better every day,” Nelson said. “We work hard. We work as much as we can during the course of the season. It’s good to see guys progress and want to get better as well.”
Of course, Nelson wants to compete for championships. He came close with the Magic, who reached the NBA Finals in 2009 and Eastern Conference finals in 2010. He signed with the Mavericks to help them make a title run, but owner Mark Cuban chose to upgrade to Rajon Rondo and packaged Nelson, Jae Crowder, and Brandan Wright to the Celtics to get the former All-Star guard in December 2014.
Nelson found himself in a position similar to current Boston forward David Lee, edged out of the rotation by younger players. Nelson sought a better opportunity, so president of basketball operations Danny Ainge moved him to Denver.
The Nuggets have been rather insignificant since trading away Carmelo Anthony at the 2011 deadline. They fired coach Brian Shaw late last season and acquired Nelson to serve as primarily a mentor.
“Ultimately, the goal is to win and become an elite team,” Nelson said. “Hopefully I can help these guys reach that status, and an elite organization.”
Nelson, who turns 34 on Feb. 9, has been a serviceable backup but recently missed time because of a wrist injury. He is an older player trying to stay healthy in a young man’s game.
“You just have to adjust your game to what your strengths are,” Nelson said. “I still feel like I go out there and I’m an effective player. I’m not a guy that’s just going to jack shots up, but I’m still out there being effective on both ends of the court and, most importantly, running the team.”
Mudiay, the sixth overall pick in last June’s draft, was immediately named the starter once the Nuggets moved disgruntled guard Ty Lawson to the Rockets last summer. He is considered a potential All-Star.
“He’s getting better,” Nelson said. “You see him over there right now watching film, trying to get better. Every time he steps on the court it’s a learning experience for him, something he’s never been through. He’s doing a lot better job of controlling the game and running the team, taking care of the ball as well.”
For Nelson, being a mentor and team leader is almost mandatory in a locker room filled with twentysomethings who have yet to achieve significant on-court success. Aging veterans are a dying breed. That type of leadership is invaluable.
“It’s unique because they’re so young but they have so much talent,” Nelson said. “The one thing about it is, with that talent they just have to figure out where that talent [fits], they just have to figure out where their game can be within the league. The thing you can control is how hard you play. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”
A potential trade target for many teams, including the Celtics, will be Pelicans swingman Ryan Anderson, who has an expiring $8.5 million contract and has responded well following a serious neck injury in January 2014. Anderson is averaging 17.2 points and 6.1 rebounds this season while mostly coming off the bench and could be the knock-down shooter and floor-stretcher the Celtics could use at power forward. The Pelicans entered Thursday 5½ games out of a playoff spot in the West and could consider making major moves before the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Guards Eric Gordon and Norris Cole also have expiring contracts . . . Kelly Olynyk was left out of the 3-point Shootout at All-Star Weekend in his native Canada. Most of the candidates are solid choices, but Miami’s Chris Bosh was selected despite shooting just 36.6 percent from the arc. Olynyk ranks 13th in the league at 41.7 percent. Bosh is a bigger name than Olynyk and also a former Raptors star with the game in Toronto. But it’s hard to imagine why the league would pass on a native Canadian for a showcase event in Canada . . . Another player who could be dealt is Detroit guard Brandon Jennings, who has shown he is healthy after Achilles’ surgery and perhaps ready for a starting role. That won’t happen with the Pistons as Reggie Jackson is locked in as the starting point guard. Jennings has an expiring $8.3 million contract, the final year of a three-year deal he signed with the Bucks.
Fall from grace
The new year hasn’t been particularly kind to the Duke men’s and women’s basketball programs. Both have fallen out of their respective Associated Press top 25 polls for the first time in years. Here’s a look back on their run of success:
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.