An emotional Doc Rivers made his first return to Boston on Wednesday, leading the Los Angeles Clippers to a 96-88 victory at the TD Garden. But on a night filled with so much sentiment, it was hard to deny that from a purely rational perspective, Doc's departure from the Boston Celtics wound up helping all parties involved.
It was the rare breakup that wasn't amicable when it happened but resulted in everyone ending up better off.
The benefits of Doc's decision are obvious for the Clippers. They won the game, have the better overall team, and get to enjoy the kind of capable leadership that they've needed for years. Rivers has Los Angeles playing excellent offense, which isn't particularly new or unexpected from a team that features Chris Paul at the helm.
What's more impressive is the way Rivers has fashioned the Clippers into a respectable defensive outfit. The roster doesn't boast a bona fide anchor in the middle like Kevin Garnett was for the Celtics, but Los Angeles currently ranks ninth in the league in defensive rating.
And lately, Rivers seems to have really gotten the defensive message across to his team; L.A. has held its last four opponents to no more than 88 points. That's an impressive achievement, especially considering that Rivers is dealing with a collection of talent so different from the group he coached in Boston.
L.A. held the Celtics to 88 points and managed to limit them to just 24 in the paint, despite playing with Blake Griffin at center down the stretch. The recent defensive surge, which was on full display against Boston, is a real testament to Rivers' versatility.
Ultimately, it's hard to talk about Rivers and Los Angeles' success without giving credit to Paul, who had 22 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the Clippers Wednesday night. He's having one of his best seasons under Rivers, and appears to appreciate a coach who does more than roll the ball out and stand awkwardly on the sidelines. (Consider that the requisite shot at Vinny Del Negro. It had to happen.)
Overall, the Clippers are much better off for having Rivers on the bench. In a more surprising turn of events, the Celtics are also in a better place because of the changes that took place after Doc skipped town.
They're certainly not the perennial contenders they were as a veteran group the past handful of years. But Boston now has Brad Stevens running the show which, on its own, appears to be the kind of addition that will make Boston a power player for a very long time.
For what it's worth, Stevens has Rivers' endorsement:
The first-year head coach has his rag-tag bunch playing intelligently. Stevens is getting creative with lineups and roles in a way that Rivers never did. Against the Clips, many of Stevens' successful outside-the-box tweaks were on full display.
Avery Bradley, miscast as a ball-handler in the Celtics' old regime, played almost exclusively off the ball. That's a change Stevens made a few weeks ago, and it has freed up the fourth-year guard to defend like a maniac while taking on much simpler responsibilities on the offensive end.
Jared Sullinger attempted three shots from beyond the arc, another imaginative wrinkle of Stevens'. Sully has now attempted 60 triples in just 22 games after trying only five all of last year.
Perhaps most incredibly, Stevens has Jordan Crawford (yes, that Jordan Crawford) playing point guard effectively. Crawford had 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds and was the team's clear leader in a game that was close from wire to wire.
Jeff Green (29 points on Wednesday) is having his best statistical season, Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk have shown promise, and Brandon Bass is rebounding better than he ever has. You can cite small sample sizes, the desire of players to showcase themselves for potential trades or any number of other potential motivations.
But it's also possible that Stevens has simply figured out how to best utilize the young talent at his disposal.
You might argue that Rivers would have gotten similar results, but the fact is he wouldn't have ever been the coach of a roster like this. His departure allowed the Celtics to start the new era Stevens is leading them into.
The timing—if not the execution—of Doc's exit was perfect. Especially now that we've seen how Garnett and Paul Pierce look in their new digs. By leaving when he did, Rivers prompted the Celtics to look toward the future at exactly the right time. The new age had to start, and it couldn't have begun as long as Rivers was on the sideline.
The knowledge that everything turned out for the best didn't make Rivers any less sentimental in his postgame press conference.
Doc Rivers is crying during the presser as he tries to describe his emotions tonight.— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) December 12, 2013
Much of his emotion derived from the good memories he had with the Celtics. Great professional success makes him beloved in Boston, despite his somewhat messy exit to L.A. At the same time, Rivers might have also been overcome upon realizing that the team he left behind simply doesn't exist anymore.
An emotional Doc Rivers: "People don't get Boston, they really don't. They don't understand. I think you have to be part of it to get it."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) December 12, 2013
The Celtics he knew were full of crusty veterans and battle-tested pros. That version of the team has been wiped off the map. What he saw on Boston's bench didn't look anything like what he remembered.
So maybe he wept for the extinction of his old team.
But that team didn't really die. Instead, it's in the process of being reborn, of evolving into something it could never have become with him around. The Celtics are changing course. They're embracing analytics more than ever, handing the reins over to a fresh thinker and starting anew.
Doc's departure helped make the Clippers into the fringe contender his Celtics used to be, while also allowing his former club to turn the page at the perfect moment.
I'd call that a win-win situation.