Doc Rivers is the best coach left in these NBA playoffs, and no, that is not a typo.
Take a deep breath because this might be hard idea to wrap one’s head around.
Everyone already knows that Rivers has masterfully maneuvered the Celtics past the Heat, Cavaliers, and has seemingly put a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference Finals by winning the first two games of the series against Orlando on the road. Yet, a number of factors contribute to Doc being the most desired man behind the bench in these playoffs.
It is easy to start with the worst coach left in these playoffs.
That dubious title belongs to Stan Van Gundy.
The man commonly referred to as Ron Jeremy’s twin already began his tumultuous playoff legacy while coaching the Miami Heat.
In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, Van Gundy and the Heat blew three games to two series lead to the Detroit Pistons, losing in seven games.
While coaching teams that are successful in the regular season, Van Gundy has found considerably less success in the playoffs.
Van Gundy failed to lead the Miami Heat and the star tandem of Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to the NBA title (he was replaced by boss Pat Riley midseason, and the Heat ended up winning the title).
Stan the Man did lead the Magic to the finals last season by defeating LeBron James and the Cavaliers, but one is left to wonder if the Cavs were not as strong as everyone thought (especially given their collapse against the Celtics this season).
This year Van Gundy’s decisions have fallen under intense scrutiny.
He has yet to put his most potent five players on the floor at the same time (Howard, Gortat, Reddick, Lewis, and Nelson). This lineup would give the Celtics a significant length disadvantage, forcing Pierce (6’7") to defend Lewis (6’10") out on the perimeter.
Van Gundy also continues to rely heavily on Vince Carter.
This trend seems to continue in Orlando.
After being “injured,” Carter re-entered game twp. At a critical juncture late in the fourth quarter, Carter made a rare isolation charge, and drew a shooting foul.
He proceeded to miss both free throws en route to the Magic’s second straight home playoff loss of the series.
Despite having the most powerful defensive force in the league in Dwight Howard, Stan Van has failed to come up with any effective strategy of limiting Rajon Rondo, who did a great job is distributing to Ray Allen (25 points) in game one, and personally took over by scoring 26 points in game two.
Van Gundy relied on big leads in his two previous sweeps in the 2010 playoffs.
Yet, he has failed to create effective defensive gameplans, and in tight situations (four-point game one loss, and three-point game two loss).
He is also unable to orchestrate successful plays that put his players in a good position to score. Like his team, Van Gundy can accurately be labeled as someone who is good in the regular season, but will never be able to win in the playoffs, and will always serve as a detriment to his team.
Let's do away with another obvious truth.
Alvin Gentry may not make it past his first year as Suns coach, despite his deep playoff run.
Gentry has worked in the league for the past 20 years, primarily as an assistant coach. He has served as head coaches in intermediate positions (Miami and Detroit during the strike season).
His most prominent stint as a head coach came for notoriously bad Clippers teams from 2003. He has only coached in the playoffs once before the 2009-2010 season, and did not manage to escape the first round.
Fast forward to these playoffs and his inexperience shows.
Gentry has failed to taken advantage of perhaps the best point guard in the history of the league, playing alongside one of the most dynamic big men in the league in Amare’ Stoudamire. All while coaching surprise standouts Robin Lopez, and crafty veteran Grant Hill.
However, Gentry’s biggest disappointment has been in his supposed emphasis on defensive philosophy.
In just two games against the Lakers, Gentry’s supposed stress in coaching the defensive end of the floor have yielded 252 points in two games.
Given that Gentry’s Suns are down 2-0 in the series, and have no answer for Kobe Bryant or the Lakers length in the front court (Gasol, Bynum, Odom, and Artest), it is safe to assume the Lakers are half way complete with a sweep of the Suns.
With Amare Stoudamire’s pending free-agency, and Steve Nash’s age, it is also safe to assume Gentry has coached his way to receiving his pink slip.
Now, here is where Lakers fans (and Bulls fans), start screaming holy hell.
Phil Jackson’s numbers are impossible to ignore: 10 NBA titles, six with the Bulls, four with the Lakers.
He even had two as a role player for the power house Knicks of the early '70s.
He has only lost in the first round once (an epic seven game series to the Steven Nash at his apex with the Suns).
He began coaching in 1989, followed by a championship three peat from 1990-1993, and then another three peat from 1996-98.
Jackson took a year off, and then returned to take the Lakers to a three-peat from 1999-2003.
The Zen master has stuck with one system (Tex Winter's triangle offense), through his 20 some odd years coaching in the league. He has dealt with cancers such as Dennis Rodman, Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. He has developed two of the greatest guards ever, as well as coached with five of the greatest players of all time (Jordan, Pippen, Malone, O’Neal, and Bryant).
All of this history, however, does not make him the best coach for these particular playoffs.
Let's start with the first problem.
Jackson has been blessed with extraordinary talent.
Since his first year in the league, Jackson was handed the best player in the history of the league on a silver platter. Upon his return to coaching Jackson was given the most dominant player of his era (Shaq), and the future of the league in Bryant.
Jordan and Bryant specifically are considered the two best scoring guards of all time, a fact which many fans seem to take for granted when discussing Jackson. While Jordan and Kobe are scorers first, they also have shown a magnificent ability to defer to teammates four the first three and a half quarters of the game.
In essence, Jackson has an extension of himself on the court by which to rely.
These playoffs are no different, as Kobe Bryant has dominated and controlled all aspects of the game in the Lakers decisive run to the finals.
However, this does pose a problem.
Basketball is a team sport, and aside from last year, the teams that have won championships since the turn of the century (Spurs, Pistons, Celtics), have illustrated that Basketball is still a team game.
Jackson’s reliance on Kobe Bryant could prove to be detrimental to the Lakers in facing a tougher opponent, most likely the Celtics.
The other problem that undermines Jackson is resistance. Start with Jackson’s finals appearances in 2004, and 2008.
Both years, Jackson’s Lakers were faced a hungry, talented, and physically imposing teams.
And in both series Jackson failed to make adjustments, such as forcing Kobe to defer the ball in 2004, and committing to a longer fontcourt lineup in 2008. Even when the Lakers won the title last year, they faced both a far inferior team in the Orlando Magic and had an astronomical coaching advantage over the previously mentioned buffoon that is Stan Van Gundy.
Phil and the Lakers have faced little resistance in these playoffs.
The toughest challenge up to this point came in the first round against an inexperienced Oklahoma City Thunder team.
Jackson and the Lakers will likely face the Eastern Conference champion coming off back-to-back sweeps.
The question remains: will Phil Jackson be able to coach his team when the intensity level is raised?
The coaching crown really should belong to Rivers.
Let's start in 2008 when Rivers took three aging superstars (Pierce 30, Allen 32, and Garnett 32), a second-year guard, Rajon Rondo, and a young center, Kendrick Perkins, into the playoffs.
While the Celtics seemingly did not personify the ability to close like a champion, they nonetheless prevailed against the No. 8 seeded Atlanta Hawks in seven games.
It took another seven games for the Celtics to dispatch a young LeBron and a Cavaliers team that surprisingly put up its best postseason fight to date.
The team's best performances came in the next round, as the they took down the presumptive favorite in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons.
This series went six games, and finally established the Celtics as the class of the East, but they weren’t finished.
To try and predict the likely 2010 Finals matchup is like trying to pick the winner of rubber match in baseball. It really could go either way.
But if one is using the 2008 Finals as a barometer, then Doc Rivers certainly holds the keys to victory.
Rivers managed bench players such as P.J. Brown, rookie Glen Davis, Eddie House, and James Posey.
Most importantly, Rivers centered his gameplan around balancing touches between Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
Rivers's ability to have players buy into his team system, as opposed to Phil Jackson, who allowed an emotional and frustrated Kobe Bryant rely on himself, instead of his teammates, is what separates him. Rivers's emphasis in all of his players, rather than Jackson’s belief and trust in just one, may end up yielding the same results in 2010 as 2008.
Rivers's rotations for his bench have been even more crucial in these playoffs. Everyone knows about the Celtics starting five, but Rivers has had to adapt to less offensive production from players such as Paul Pierce, who had to guard LeBron James, somewhat inconsistent play from Ray Allen, and KG’s limited defensive ability due to the wear and tear on his knees.
Rivers has relied on Tony Allen for defensive stops, and some surprise offensive production.
Doc has also differed some of Garnett’s enforcer presence and rebounding responsibilities to Glenn Davis, who truly has blossomed since last postseason when Garnett was out with an injury. Rivers has even found the right spots to play Rasheed Wallace, who, when properly motivated, is a force on defense and picks his spots effectively on offense.
Rivers ability to balance the minutes of the aging Celtics starters, while maximizing the production from his bench, is a skill that even the great Phil Jackson could learn from.
Another one of Rivers's most important coaching strength’s is his emphasis on team.
The performance of the Lakers will always be determined by the production and decisions of Kobe Bryant.
This year especially, the Celtics have had to go in the opposite direction.
Rivers has given more responsibility to Rajon Rondo, yes, but it is the belief in the balance of the team that has allowed them to succeed.
Garnett has been steady, posting double digit points and or rebounds throughout the playoffs.
Pierce and Allen have never quite gotten in sync together.
When one comes to life, the other often fades into the background and has a quiet night.
River’s has seemingly adjusted the game plans accordingly. Take the first two games of the Orlando series. Allen was guarded by Matt Barnes, supposedly the Magic’s best perimeter defender, so what did Doc do?
After Allen started off hot, all of the Celtics, not just Rondo, actively fed Allen the ball.
The result: 25 points for Allen from all over the floor, and a Celtics victory.
Meanwhile, in game two, Allen started out cold, and struggled to get the ball. Insert the supposedly catatonic Paul Pierce, who dominated the lethargic Vince Carter for 28 points, 22 of which came in the first half.
Patience and trust in his team concept is what Rivers has preached all playoffs, and the players belief in him and his system, has allowed them to hit that on-switch, that so few fans and pundits that existed.
Building off the team concept is the trust issue, and not just in his players.
While Phil Jackson is regarded as a "my way or the highway" kind of teacher, Rivers has taken a different approach.
He always believed in the concept of a defensive-oriented scheme.
Yet, he believed there was someone who could teach it better.
Enter Celtic assistant Tom Thibodeau, the latest defensive mastermind in the NBA.
Thibodeau was the architect of the 2008 championship team that was based on the inside-out strategy centered around Kevin Garnett’s inside length and presence. This year, he has devised more adaptive strategies.
Start with the second round against Cleveland.
Thibodeau assigned Pierce and Tony Allen to guard LeBron, all while giving strong help from both sides.
As a result the Celtics placed the responsibility of scoring on Cleveland’s secondary scorers (Mo Williams, Atwaan Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal) who didn’t exactly carry the load offensively.
Thibodeau has implored a similar strategy in the Orlando series when handling Dwight Howard. The Celtics leave Howard in single coverage against Kendrick Perkins, who had surprising success against Howard in Game One.
This strategy has allowed the Celtics to extend on Orlando’s perimeter shooters (Jameer Nelson, JJ Reddick, and particularly Rashard Lewis, who has scored just 18 points in two games).
In short, Doc’s trust in Thibodeau and his defensive strategies have crippled two of the league’s premier offensive weapons in LeBron James (supposedly the league’s most physically gifted player) and Dwight Howard (supposedly the league's most physically imposing player).
If the series against Cleveland and Orlando have shown us anything is that, when it comes to limiting one man offensive production, and team offensive production, the Celtics have excelled dramatically in both.
Rivers's trust in Thibodeau. And the Celtics belief in them will undoubtedly pose problems for whoever they play in the next round, especially for the Lakers, a team whose most offensive positions rely on Kobe Bryant.
The most telling of Doc River’s strength’s maybe his attitude.
It can best be described in one word: humble.
Rivers is certainly a man of confidence, but never strays into the realm of arrogance. Unlike Jackson, whose egotistic pride exudes overconfidence, Rivers concentrates on hard work and discipline.
Just like in the old days, Kobe and the Lakers are showtime, gleaming with a smugness that could only be found in LA. For all of Jackson’s “zen” attitude, he and his team have pranced through the playoffs as if it is their natural God-given right.
The Celtics under Rivers are more reminiscent of the great Celtic teams under Red Auerbach and Larry Bird. Hard work, dedication and determination is what Doc prescribes for the Celtics.
And boy do they give it out.
Teams such as Cleveland and Orland take a fun approach to the game. Pundits such as Marc Jackson say, “Man, when Dwight Howard is smiling, you know the Magic are clicking.”
The Celtics, however, do the opposite of smile.
Pierce, Garnett, and Allen, the tribal counsel of a championship team, scowl, push, and bristle at the Magic.
Unlike the Magic, they refuse to help their opponent up after a hard foul, and relish getting inside the minds of head-cases such as Dwight Howard and Vince Carter.
All of this stems from Rivers, who has instigated a newfound toughness that has arrived just in time for this deep playoff run.
The Celtics and Rivers love to play the underdog.
When Paul Pierce commented that the Celtics were going to close out Orlando at home in a four-game sweep, Rivers was more grounded.
He rebuked Pierce's comments, because he does not want the Celtics getting ahead of themselves. Doc loves staying under the radar.
Many believed in 2008 that due to the Celtics grueling playoff run they would be too tired to defeated the Lakers.
This year it will undoubtedly be more of the same, as the Celtics will be “too old” for the rubber match finals of the rivalry.
Yet, that’s just the way Doc wants it.
While Phil Jackson may be in the Hall of Fame, and wear 10 rings, he has yet to defeat the Celtics and Doc Rivers in the Finals.
If Rivers and the Celtics do recapture the title and beat LA, that would make Doc 2-0 against Jackson in the NBA Finals.
Try and wrap your head around that.