9.01.2014

Rivers Secret Plan: The "R" Word

12/3/04

WALTHAM - Since the late '80s, the Celtics have employed a succession of basketball coaches who vowed they would make their basketball team run.

Guess what? They might finally have a coach who really means it. Doc Rivers isn't asking Paul Pierce, Gary Payton, Ricky Davis, and the boys to run, he's ordering them to run, and if they don't, he's got a nice little piece of hardwood reserved for them on the sideline.

   Pierce found himself banished to the bench with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter of Boston's 101-100 win over Milwaukee Wednesday night after he failed to fill the lane in transition. This was not a one-time transgression. Rivers has been hammering his players to push the ball and fulfill their responsibilities accordingly. Sometimes Pierce does it, sometimes he doesn't (he is not alone in this regard). Rivers, who plans on stressing his uptempo style until it's ingrained into the players' hideous headbands, yanked Pierce with the game hanging in the balance, and absorbed a string of expletives from his captain as a result. Pierce, who is supposed to be the leader of this team, then sat down and sulked while his team kept pace with the Bucks. Then, when he checked back in less than two minutes later, he drilled a big 3-pointer, and turned to jaw at his coach again.

An NBA player and coach trading barbs in the heat of a game is hardly big news. In fact, it has been commonplace for decades. Ever catch the verbiage between Bill Fitch and Kevin McHale back in the day? Or Chris Ford and Larry Bird, who were once teammates? Surely you recall Jimmy Rodgers and Danny Ainge butting heads. The dialogue between Rick Pitino and Antoine Walker was legendary.

"I'm telling you right now," Rivers said yesterday, "if you ever put a microphone on my bench and listened to 'Nique [Wilkins] and [former Hawks coach] Mike Fratello, you'd have a story every night, and it would be a hell uva story."

Pierce, who did not comment following Wednesday's confrontation with Rivers, tried to diffuse this story yesterday by apologizing to his coach and his teammates. He addressed the media and accepted responsibility for the incident, saying, "I wasn't setting a good example. I've got to do a better job of that."

Boston's best player was still steaming, though, over the humiliation of being pulled out of a 1-point game. You can be sure Pierce is wondering if Miami coach Stan Van Gundy would ever do this to Shaquille O'Neal, or if Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich would ever do this to Kobe Bryant, or if Sixers coach Jim O'Brien would ever do this to Allen Iverson.

Here's the deal on that, Paul: It's irrelevant. You play for Doc Rivers. He's the coach. He's the boss. He wasn't afraid to challenge Tracy McGrady, and he won't be afraid to challenge you. Take that the right way, and you'll both be better for it. Dwell on it and let it linger, and you're in for another miserable season.

Both Pierce and Rivers insisted yesterday they are moving forward. Let's hope they mean it. Their little dust-up is trivial; the larger issue is whether Pierce's petulance is indicative of a deeper dissatisfaction. Friends and former teammates claim he is not happy in Boston. He is in the prime of his career, and he's toiling for a team that is years, not weeks or months, from being a championship contender. That wouldn't make me too happy, either. But being unhappy and being so miserable that you are looking for a way out are two entirely different scenarios.

Pierce is the one marquee name that still puts fannies in the seats of the FleetCenter. If he demanded a trade, the Celtics would have problems. Aside from the fact he is a supremely talented player who, for the most part, is hard working, affable and accommodating, Pierce is also marketable. The current ownership group, loaded with bottom-line businessmen, have sunk millions into this venture, and they have the right to expect some financial return. With Pierce, they've got it. Without him, it starts to get dicey.

Taking that into consideration, you've got to love it even more that Rivers did what was right, instead of what was safe. What he told Pierce Wednesday night was that nobody is bigger than the team, not even a three-time All-Star.

Rivers insisted yesterday he never meant to single out his highest-profile player to make an example of him.

"I didn't intend it that way, but it probably ended up that way," Rivers acknowledged. "Now they're thinking, 'He'll take anyone out.' Look, it wasn't an easy decision. It's a [1-point] game, and I'm sitting there looking up at the score knowing there's a chance we're going to lose this game [without Pierce]."

Rivers and Pierce still have not sat down and worked through this little spat. The coach figured it would happen today after the team shootaround. Maybe he's still waiting for his superstar to cool off. Pierce said all the right things yesterday, but it was clear he still doesn't agree with Rivers's decision to pull him for something Pierce termed "minor."

"I've never been taken out of a game for doing something on offense," he said. "This is the first time in my whole career."

Pierce still does not grasp this fast-break business. Coaches talk about running all the time, but it's hard to convince your players to commit to that style night in and night out. It takes perseverance, and some discomfort for a while, before teams buy into it. Most of Rivers's predecessors hung with the plan for a month or so, then abandoned it when met with too much resistance.

For the moment, Rivers isn't budging. He knows he doesn't have the personnel to play a half-court offense. His best players are all about the same size, and they are gravitating to the same spot on the floor. They all want the same kind of shots. If you get those players to run and stretch the floor, their games will benefit. Pierce, in fact, could benefit most of all.

Rivers believes Pierce will eventually grow to understand all of this.

"For the most part, he's been great at it," said Rivers. "But we're not there yet. Running has to be second nature. We've done it in spurts. We did it in Orlando, almost for the whole game. We did it almost the whole game against Miami. But it's different. It's even different for Gary, and he wants to run."

Pierce was in no mood yesterday to argue the merits of half-court vs. fast-break.

"He's the coach," Pierce said. "Whatever he says, goes. That's it."

It should be, anyway. Give Rivers credit for being courageous enough to take on the superstar to make a point. Give Pierce credit for owning up to his mistakes.

Give them both another month or so to determine if this was, indeed, much ado about nothing.

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