Everywhere Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers turns these days, he runs smack into Father Time.
The NBA all-star teams are announced, and Boston forward Kevin Garnett, a 14-time selection, isn’t chosen. He’s been there every year since 1997, with the exception of 1999, when another NBA lockout cancelled the game. Meanwhile, Rivers’s 19-year-old son, Austin, is a star freshman guard at Duke University who hit a game-winning shot last Wednesday to beat North Carolina. He’ll be coming to the NBA some time soon.
Then, there are nights like Friday: the tail-end of back-to-back games after an 88-87 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We were awful,” Rivers lamented – and that was before the Toronto Raptors slapped the Celtics 86-74 in the first game of a seven-game, two-week homestand.
For one of the rare times this season, the Raptors seized an opponent and didn’t let go – youthful legs carrying them to a 26-14 first-quarter lead that was so comprehensive that at one point Rivers called a 20-second timeout 10 seconds after a previous time-out to tear into his team for failing to execute a play, turning his back on them and returning to the bench to let guard Rajon Rondo do the duties.
Rivers huddled with his assistants in the hallway beside the dressing room after the game, drawing a curtain to keep out prying eyes. Chris Wilcox appeared to receive most of his wrath during the timeout, but no names were mentioned as Rivers fought to keep an edge from his voice as he talked about “being a pro,” and being able to run plays set for you, and how it “drained energy from people who are being pros.”
Celtics people such as broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn and director of special projects and former all-star Jo Jo White say Rivers’s experience as a player (13 years in NBA with four teams) has given him added insight into nurturing Garnett, 35, Paul Pierce, 34, and Ray Allen, 36, through the twilight years of their careers.
The cobbled-together nature inflicted on this season by the NBA lockout – Allen said: “There’s no rhyme or reason to what we’re used to” – has added another wrinkle to the old face.
“I didn’t play during the last lockout, but I would say this: just having coached for a while, you kind of know your guys and understand legs,” Rivers said.
“If I have a choice between their brains or legs, I’m going to choose their legs, you know? Because if you’re tired – if we do practice and watch all the video in the world and their legs don’t work – it’s not going to matter.
“So we’ve chosen the route we’ve gone. Less practices, less film work, less everything. I don’t enjoy it, but I think it’s the way you have to go right now.”
The Celtics came into Friday’s game leading the NBA in lowest field-goal percentage against, lowest three-point percentage against and fewest points per game allowed. This, remember, from a club that is without 25-year-old Jeff Green, who was supposed to add an element of youth and athleticism but is out for the season with a heart condition. But it didn’t matter Friday. The Raptors went wire-to-wire on the team that had allowed the third-fewest fast-break points in the league.
It was close in the fourth, but with the Celtics in zone defence, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey unleashed Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa. And when the Celtics started to roust themselves late, Casey put in Jose Calderon – who tortured Rondo all night even without reserve Jerryd Bayless in uniform. During timeouts, Casey kept reminding his team that the Celtics were gassed, that they had no shot-blockers, that if they were a step or two behind they couldn’t get set defensively.
Rivers’s team arrived at their Toronto hotel at 3:30 a.m. local time Friday, and some of his players didn’t turn in until 5, but Rivers didn’t give them an out. If they’re not mentally tough enough to handle that, he sniffed, they’re not mentally tough enough to win.
Nothing to do with age, that.