PLAYA VISTA, CA — As the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens once sang, "The first cut is the deepest, baby I know."
But what about the second cut? And every cut after that?
The last time these two teams met, the Clippers pulled out a 96-88 victory in Doc's emotional return to the TD Garden, where he coached the C's to their 17th title in 2008 and led them within striking distance of their 18th in 2010.
The Clippers' circumstances will be vastly different on this occasion—and not just because Chris Paul won't be in the lineup on account of a shoulder injury. "It'll be a little different. It's here," Doc said before practice on Tuesday, referring to the rematch taking place at the Staples Center in downtown L.A. "It's not there, so that's a big difference."
But probably not the biggest or most important difference. That would be the Celtics roster, which features just four active players who were on hand for Rivers' last run in Beantown last season. Much of that turnover came in the wake of Doc's departure this past summer, when C's GM Danny Ainge orchestrated the blockbuster trade that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets.
A sixth, Rajon Rondo, has yet to play this season on account of an ACL tear suffered nearly a year ago, but remains Rivers' closest confidante in the Celtics locker room. "Rondo is the guy that I was the closest with because I coached him the longest, and I talk to him all the time," Rivers added. The two were partnered as player and coach for six seasons prior to Rivers' arrival in L.A.
As much as Doc may still love Rondo and the Celtics, there's no question that he's fully invested in the Clippers now. "Once you're in one place, you're all in in that place," said Doc, "and if you go to another place, you're all in in that place. That's what you have to be as a coach. That's what you have to be as a player.
"At the end of the day, I don't think it's even sports. If you're working somewhere, you've got to be committed to it. In my case, I'm committed to this."
Rivers brought up Kendrick Perkins, who Doc coached for six-and-a-half seasons in Boston prior to the trade that sent Perk to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2010, as an example of a player who he's seen invest himself fully in every team for which he's played. Perkins' on-court effectiveness has waned since he's been in OKC, though he remains an important member of the Thunder's championship-caliber locker room culture.
Like Perk nearly four years ago, Jared Dudley has done well to integrate himself into the Clippers' day-to-day operations. He was a key cog in Rivers' first big move at the helm in L.A., when Doc acquired Dudley and J.J. Redick in a three-team trade that saw Eric Bledsoe wind up with the Phoenix Suns.
Dudley has some sense, then, of what Doc is going through. "Any time you play your old team, you want to win," Dudley said. "For us, it's trying to stay on the right path."
That means not allowing side plots like rematches between old friends distract the Clippers from the task at hand: winning games without Chris Paul. L.A. will play its next three games at home—against the Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks—before hitting the road for seven games while the Staples Center serves as the annual home of the Grammys.
Every win for L.A. and every loss for Boston only further justifies Doc's decision to sever ties with the Celtics and seek employment with a long-term contender. But just because Rivers made the right choice doesn't mean it doesn't hurt to face his old friends as new foes.
Not as much as it used to, though, not after the first cut.
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