Rivers Benches Starters
January 9, 2005
CHICAGO - The Celtics' starters played surprisingly few minutes in the final quarter last night, even though a comeback was within reach. Raef LaFrentz and Mark Blount stayed on the bench the entire quarter. Gary Payton and Paul Pierce played the final four minutes down the stretch. Jiri Welsch made a one-minute cameo, though he has not been a regular finisher. The reallocation of minutes to Ricky Davis, Al Jefferson, Marcus Banks, Tony Allen, and Walter McCarty was not some newfangled strategy employed by head coach Doc Rivers. It was a message.
When asked why he held the Boston starters on the bench as Chicago proceeded to win, 102-91, Rivers said, "They didn't deserve to be in. You've got to play defense. You've got to play defense.
"[Eddy] Curry was going to have a career high to start the game. So, we've got to defend. If you don't defend, you don't play on this team anymore."
Judging from comments in the locker room, the ultimatum did not sit well with the starters, who were hesitant to discuss the Celtics' defensive shortcoming. In 13 out of the last 14 games, an opponent has scored 100 points or more. But it's not the points that bother Rivers. It's the ease with which teams find open looks and easily shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. It's the lack of rebounding.
"Whatever he says, we'll go with," said Payton. "I'm not really talking about [what Rivers said]. I can't comment on that. Whatever happens, happens. If he's going to coach the game like that, that's the way it's going to happen. It's really a lot more than that.
"I think there's a lot of guys out there trying. What does it mean we're not defending? I don't know. That's his thing. He's the coach. So, if he feels [the starters] are not defending, then we're not defending. So, if we've got to get subbed, that's the way we've got to go. I don't know [what the problem is]. I'm not evaluating. I'm not going to say anything against my coach."
Pierce took the fourth quarter benching more personally. Initially, he didn't want to talk about the controversial move. But when asked if the starters put in effort on defense, but simply did not get results, Pierce became vocal and flippant.
"I guess I didn't play no defense," said Pierce. "Whatever he says.
"I don't know what we've got to do. Maybe sit me the whole fourth quarter because I'm not playing no defense. We've just got to outscore everybody or sit me down. I don't know."
Rivers repeatedly has said the Celtics need to recognize they can't win by simply trying to outscore opponents. Last night's game at the United Center was another case in point. While the Bulls finished at 48 percent, they hovered above 50 percent from the field for much of the contest. More often than not, Kirk Hinrich found the open man as he tied a career high with 14 assists and accounted for nearly half of the Bulls' 32. Chicago narrowly outrebounded Boston, 44-42, but the Green could have easily owned the glass if LaFrentz and Blount managed more than a 6 rebounds combined. When asked about that statistic, LaFrentz shot back, "Well, how many minutes did we play?" Together, they played 38.
Rivers isn't buying that excuse.
Jefferson and McCarty grabbed 8 rebounds apiece in a combined 34 minutes off the bench.
"We haven't rebounded all year," said LaFrentz. "You can crunch the numbers anyway you want to. You can say we don't defend. You can say we don't rebound. You can say we shoot a poor percentage. You can say whatever you want to say. The bottom line is wins and losses. We're four games below .500 and it's not good enough."
With two more games against Chicago scheduled for January, LaFrentz and his teammates knew last night's contest held special importance. Still, the Celtics entered halftime behind, 58-52, then allowed the Bulls to practically run away with the contest in the third.
After the Celtics closed within 2 points (60-58) early in the quarter, the Bulls staged a 13-0 run. Hinrich found Othella Harrington for a 14-footer to start the spurt, then the point guard followed with a 19-footer and a pair of 3-pointers. The Bulls managed to hold a double-digit lead until the fourth quarter. Boston closed within 7 (92-85) on a dunk by Davis with 4:23 remaining. By that time, Rivers had grudgingly reinserted most of his starters, though they could not complete the rally.
"Chicago was great," said Rivers. "They played the game the right way. They played with great effort. They played defense."