Championship bonds are never broken. The appreciation for what Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce accomplished together when they sent the 17th championship banner into the TD Bank Garden rafters in 2008 will never be forgotten.
But don't expect to see any shared courtesies in Saturday's matchup between Rivers' Los Angeles Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets.
The same unrelenting competitiveness that fueled this trio to the championship podium together will now put these three hardwood heroes in a spirited battle against one another. With just nine wins and eight losses to show between them, both teams have plenty to prove inside the Staples Center.
Rivers is still helping the Clippers (6-3) understand how to play championship-caliber hoops on a nightly basis. Title aspirations seem even further removed for Garnett and Pierce's Nets (3-5), who now might be forced to wage war without starting point guard Deron Williams (ankle).
But which of these former coworkers has the most to gain tonight? Perhaps more importantly, which side could lose the most?
It feels a bit like a broken record. NBA coaches are routinely shortchanged for their importance, which often shifts from X's-and-O's execution to personality management.
While it's true that the steady strokes of superstars' egos puts coaches in a tight corner when it comes to pleasing an entire locker room, the best basketball minds understand how to balance their roles of tactical general and psychologist.
This is where Rivers has always put himself near the top of his profession.
"Execution is what matters most [to Rivers]" ESPN.com's Beckley Mason wrote. Mason waxed poetically on the coach's "strong-side pressure defense" and called him "a master of misdirection."
Yet when Garnett discussed his former coach with Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, he focused on the intangibles that Rivers brings to a franchise:
He gave us confidence we can do everything. Although he is well spoken and comes across really intellectual, Doc's a beast, Doc's an animal. There is nothing soft about him. He pushed us every day.
And herein lies the true genius of Rivers. He has the strategic brilliance that Mason detailed and the ability to inspire a locker room the way Garnett described.
That's why Rivers was rewarded with a $7 million salary when he touched down in L.A. this summer. It's the reason the limitations of his roster—frontcourt depth, half-court creativity—haven't dampened the team's championship hopes.
Chris Paul may have reversed this franchise's fortune when he arrived, but Rivers brushed the final red, white and blue coats in Tinseltown. He's replaced the old absurdity of the Clippers ever winning a title with a fresh wave of reality.
He's left the sizzle and added the substance to Blake Griffin's game (22.1 points on 57.1 percent shooting). He has Paul poised for an all-out assault on the MVP voting (20.4 points, 12.8 assists and 2.9 steals). He listened to the snickers when he voiced his vision of a Defensive Player of the Year campaign for DeAndre Jordan and now is laughing himself, as Jordan's numbers are impossible to ignore (12.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals).
Rivers has established the Clippers among the NBA's elites, a club Garnett and Pierce are still trying to help Brooklyn get inside of.
"A Great Situation"
That's the way Garnett portrayed his current position in Brooklyn to Spears.
On paper, that's precisely how it looks. With 35 combined All-Star selections among the Nets' starting five, this collection of basketball talent has rarely been seen in the league's history.
But as your mind starts churning, and Brooklyn's losses keep piling up, the luster is soon lost. As impressive as those 35 All-Star nods initially sound, it doesn't take long to realize how much physical mileage that figure represents.
"A desperate situation" is what Jason Terry called his new surroundings in Brooklyn, via Brandon Parker of The Washington Post, and that certainly appears to be the more appropriate assessment. If not for a late-game life-saver from Joe Johnson on Friday, Mikhail Prokhorov's $200 million superpower could easily be looking at a 2-6 start.
The Nets have plenty of problems—not the least of which is Williams' on-going injury issues—but the man brought in to solve so many of them has been the source of even more.
Father Time catches up to every player, and it seems increasingly as if he's lengthened his lead over the 37-year-old Garnett. His offense is in shambles (career-worsts 5.8 points, 30.0 field-goal percentage, 7.1 player efficiency rating). He's gone from stopper to sieve at the defensive end (22.9 PER allowed to opposing power forwards, via 82games.com).
Garnett's 22.6 minutes a night have resulted in a net loss of 11.5 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com. Even in part-time duty, his difficulties have been impossible to mask.
While his locker room partners try to keep preaching patience, the clock is absolutely ticking on Garnett's season, maybe his career. Brooklyn general manager Billy King said it himself before the season, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York—the Nets' title window is "now...this season."
Pierce has been doing his part (13.5 points on 45.5 percent shooting), but his days in a leading role have passed. He's a piece of Brooklyn's equation, but it's a supportive one at best.
And it looks like Pierce won't be part of the festivities after all, as he's been ruled out according to the Nets (via Rod Boone):
The Nets appear capable of rising up for big games (2-1 against teams with a winning record), but this team might not have enough in the reserve tanks to bring that energy every night. The Nets have already suffered 21-point beatings by both the Orlando Magic (4-5) and Sacramento Kings (2-6).
Finding some fuel for this matchup shouldn't be hard. Finding a badly needed victory, though, that's another story.
Desperation vs. Determination
The Brooklyn Nets need this game. They're over two weeks removed from their lone statement victory—a 101-100 win over the Miami Heat Nov. 1—and just captured their first road win in five attempts Friday night.
Garnett's been around long enough to not let the outside scrutiny affect him. But you have to think he's itching for a statistical sign of his 2013-14 arrival. Filling the box score in front of his former coach would only be sweeter.
Yet it's Rivers' Clippers that have the most to prove tonight.
Forget what the rosters say. If you're looking at these two teams inside the frame of just this season, there's really only one contender in action here.
Maybe Brooklyn brings its best tonight, but L.A. has to find something even better.
Elite teams rise to any occasion, first and foremost taking care of the clubs that they should. The Nets might not feel like one of those lesser teams, but that's what the standings say they are.
Let's not forget, Rivers bore the public brunt for bailing on Boston's rebuild:
Garnett and Pierce were just pieces that Boston Celtics team president Danny Ainge used in his reclamation project. Rivers needs to win to validate his decision; any pressure to perform on Garnett and Pierce comes only from themselves.
Rivers can quiet those critics a little more with each marquee victory on his resume. Winning has some miraculous healing powers.
Both of these teams might hold title hopes, but only one looks like a legitimate contender.
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