The Boston Celtics finished the regular season with a record of 41-40.
An average basketball team in every sense of the word, they then entered the playoffs with their single greatest advantage sidelined with a torn ACL and nearly every healthy individual on their roster having inconsistent (at best) to miles below their average (at worst) seasons on both ends of the floor.
This is what long-time Boston head coach Doc Rivers had to deal with, and it's what he's still battling through after his team miraculously kept elimination at bay with two consecutive victories against the New York Knicks, a decisively better opponent.
Given the numerous discrepancies in seed, talent, experience and depth, is what we're seeing right now the best coaching job of Rivers' career? He's led the Celtics through some tough times, dark days and serious struggles but never with such a lack of fundamental talent and cohesiveness.
In fact, you'll have to go back to his days with the Orlando Magic to find a Rivers-coached team that entered a playoff series with the odds stacked this highly against victory. As head coach of the Celtics? You'd have to look at 2009 when they battled Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic with no Kevin Garnett (a series Boston took to seven games).
Or maybe 2005, when Ricky Davis and a 36-year-old Gary Payton were Rivers' third and fourth scoring options.
But right now, going down 3-0, trying to mount a historic comeback and four straight wins without Rajon Rondo in a Celtics jersey would make a second-round berth all the more difficult.
Since Garnett came aboard, the Celtics haven't faced too many teams that were better in nearly ever facet of the game. They may have been dark horses in the sense that that was what the narrative said, but with Paul Pierce, Rondo, Garnett and Ray Allen, they were never counted out of a series like they were a few days ago. Now, they're indisputable underdogs.
Let's look deeper into why what Rivers has done over the last two games deserves some serious recognition.
First up, the rotations. In Game 1, Rivers played Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford for a combined 30 minutes. They responded by giving him four total points.
In Game 2 Rivers played six guys off his bench. Four of them failed to score or contribute anything of meaning in their time out there.
In Game 3, he tinkered with his starting lineup, trying to throw a bolt of lightning into his offense by swapping Jason Terry in for Brandon Bass. Lee and Crawford combined for 23 minutes and did hardly anything positive in what ended up being a blowout loss.
Game 4 was where things changed. Terry played 40 minutes, Lee was removed from the rotation and Crawford was given an extremely short leash, registering less than seven minutes of action.
In Game 5, Rivers didn't play Lee or Crawford at all, and after Avery Bradley showed obvious struggles on both ends of the court, Rivers limited him to 22 minutes, giving most of his playing time to Terrence Williams. Ultimately, Williams scored four points and turned the ball over zero times in 17 minutes. Once again, Terry saw huge minutes (35), which is what the Celtics needed.
Playing time is huge in the playoffs, and a coach isn't a fortune teller. It's impossible to know who will or won't play well, but that's exactly what he has to do: guess. And Rivers' risky decision to play Williams over Bradley was a huge one that played a role in saving Boston's season.
Even after basically deciding to ride his starters until they passed out, Rivers was smart enough to pick the right spots for rest. In Game 5 he sat a ragged Garnett just over two minutes late in the fourth quarter, and Boston managed to register a plus/minus of +1 in that time period before he reinserted Garnett into the game with 3:43 to go.
And instead of putting in someone like Shavlik Randolph or Chris Wilcox to traditionally replace a big with a big, Rivers inserted Williams for that brief but crucial late-game stint.
From a strategic perspective, Rivers has been on point in the past two games, going away from the Pierce isolation mismatches that helped brutally murder Boston's offense through the series' first three games and putting the ball more in Terry's hands with screen-and-roll action. (Also, he found success running Pierce and Terry off hand-offs instead of those awkward post-ups near the foul line.)
In return, Terry responded by knocking down several wide open three-pointers and was able to get into a little rhythm with his mid-range game in Games 4 and 5, something the Celtics and Rivers have gone away from this season.
Here he is in Game 4, knocking down a gigantic late-game shot after receiving a high screen from Garnett.
Rivers has also recognized his team's weakness which, sadly, happens to occur every time they need to set up their half-court offense. Instead, he has encouraged the Celtics to push the ball in transition every single time a defensive rebound is grabbed. This has led to several open three-pointers, and the Celtics shot 50 percent from behind the arc in Game 5.
Defensively, Rivers has trusted his players and his system, welcoming isolation situations against Carmelo Anthony by sticking Bass on him and knowing he'll do a quality job. A lesser coach might panic and send a delayed double team—or help on the catch—after a few contested jumpers are hit, but Rivers hasn't.
Is this Doc Rivers' most impressive work? That's tough to say for a coach who's appeared in two NBA Finals (winning one) and is still currently trailing in a first-round series, but it's certainly the most he's squeezed from the least amount of talent.
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