“Jackson, to the basket, off the glass! Right at the Defensive Player of the Year!”
Mike Breen bellowed into his microphone. The Clippers, in their first season under the leadership of Tyronn Lue, were breaking the hearts of the Jazz and their fans. They stormed back from a 22-point halftime deficit to take control of their own semifinal series in the fourth quarter of game 6. When Kawhi Leonard sidelined with an ACL injury, Lue had a decision to make. He leaned into small-ball play instead of playing a traditional big. The hope was to lure Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert out to the perimeter to defend in space. Lue knew Gobert was too flat-footed, too slow to recover in space if the Clippers could find an angle to the basket. Dragging the rim protector out to the perimeter would open driving lanes for his offense. It would force the Jazz’s defensive anchor to play away from his comfort zone.
Except, the Jazz wouldn’t bite. Lue inserted Patrick Beverley into the game. He intended to add some shooting, hustle, and pesky defense to that small lineup. The Jazz were happy to bet against Beverley making shots. So, they gambled. Quin Snyder left Beverley alone on the perimeter. He kept Gobert firmly planted in the middle. But, Lue adjusted. They refused to settle for perimeter looks. They would not acquiesce to what the Jazz were doing. Rather, they decided to challenge Gobert. They allowed him to stay in the middle and elected to go right at the big man. They played his game and won.
So, on Friday, June 18, the Los Angeles Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in their franchise’s history. That was a checkpoint they failed to reach in the seven years that Doc Rivers was the head coach of the team. Mind you, Rivers was not short on talent, either. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Jamal Crawford cycled in and out. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell cycled in and out. Rivers rostered a combined seven All-Star appearances and five Sixth Man of the Year winners.
In Rivers’ tenure, the Clippers missed the playoffs once (in a rebuilding season). The Clippers earned the 2-seed once. They earned the 3-seed three times. His Clippers also earned the 4-seed and 8-seed once each. A number of those seasons ended in ‘what ifs’ after his star players went down with injuries. But, two of his playoff runs ended in shock as his teams blew 3-1 series leads before succumbing in their respective game 7s.
In Rivers’ seven seasons at the helm, the Clippers never surpassed a 7-game war in the Western Conference Semifinals. Lue, down the lone All-Star Rivers had in his final Clippers season, did what no Rivers-led Clippers team every did. The Eastern and Western Conferences are two different beasts. Such was especially the case during Rivers’ tenure in Los Angeles. His résumé might look different had his teams encountered Davids–not other Goliaths–in any of his three second round appearances with the Clippers. Nonetheless, the stench of multiple blown opportunities did not fade. Not even as he accepted a new opportunity across the country after the 2019-20 season.
Scar Tissue Is Scar Tissue
Two days after his former assistant guided the Clippers to a checkpoint Rivers never reached, on the other side of the country, Rivers found himself nursing re-opened wounds after his new team collapsed in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. This time, it was a little bit different. It wasn’t a 3-1 lead that his 1-seeded Philadelphia 76ers blew. But, it might as well have been. They coughed up an 18-point first half lead and lost game 4, allowing the Hawks to tie the series at 2 games each. Then, Rivers’ Sixers squandered a 26-point first half lead and lost game 5 at home, giving the Hawks a 3-2 edge in the series.
That wasn’t the end of the series by any means. But, the mental fracture of such a wasted opportunity was significant. It might as well have been the end. Despite forcing a game 7 to decide the series, the Sixers never recovered from their meltdowns in games 4 and 5. Maybe the knife used to induce these wounds took a different shape than the knives used to inflict pain at previous stops throughout Rivers’ career. But when all is said and done, scar tissue is scar tissue.
Coaching Takes Its Toll
Regardless of how much blame you put on Doc Rivers for his teams’ collapses, it’s difficult to not feel a bit of sympathy for the long-time head coach. To work so hard during the regular season to deliver the best playoff positioning possible for your team, only to see it all go up in flames, is undeniably taxing and painful. After being hired by the Sixers, Rivers even maintained that he was prepared to step away from coaching for a break unless the right job came along. Guiding an NBA team is exhausting, and that’s when you actually meet expectations on a year-to-year basis.
Rivers is headed to the Hall of Fame regardless of how the rest of his career plays out. But, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a degree of damage inflicted on his reputation as a head coach. Even with all the regular season victories, high seeds, and clout within the NBA family, the three instances of colossal implosion over the last eight years of his coaching career have changed the way he’s viewed by some. He can certainly clean those stains before he permanently turns in his clipboard. But, it’s going to take some self-reflection on the role he’s played in his teams’ failures.
“I’m not gonna make this into a negative year.”
On Sunday night, after an emotional game 7 defeat at the hands of the 5-seed Atlanta Hawks, Rivers wasn’t interested in entertaining such introspection. “If it was the same team, I would actually justify that question,” Rivers replied when asked whether there were self-reflections to be done after being the man at the helm of two consecutive playoff collapses.
“But since there’s two different teams, you know…Listen, this team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the Eastern Finals. I’m not gonna make this into a negative year.” Even over Zoom, you could see the disingenuity exuding from Rivers’ mouth as the words traveled into the microphone of the computer belonging to the Sixers Public Relations representative, and out of the speakers of computers belonging to reporters around the country.
“That’s not our goal, to get to the second round.”
Just two weeks prior to delivering those words, Rivers told reporters that he wasn’t satisfied with where his team was. “I don’t look at pride yet because we’ve done nothing, as far as I’m concerned. That’s not our goal, to get to the second round,” Rivers said just two days before game 1 against the Hawks. “But, we keep on ’em about humility every day and working and understanding the toughest part is still a bit ahead of you. Just keeping to the game plans and staying focused. Overall, I think they’ve done that so far. But, we’ll know soon. Atlanta is a different beast. They’re just such a different team than what we just played. And so, we’re gonna have to do different things.”
So, Doc, which one is it?
Rivers preached all season that the goal wasn’t to get to the second round. His players preached the importance of earning the 1-seed so that they could control their own destiny. Life was good after his team blitzed the Washington Wizards in the first round. At that point, it was about focusing on the task at hand because the Sixers had bigger goals than the second round. But when his team fell apart in embarrassing fashion, the season was actually a nice rebound from being swept in the first round the previous season?
From a human perspective, I can understand the defensive answer. The emotion of such a disappointing outcome was still very raw. At some point this offseason, Rivers will likely have those necessary conversations with himself. At that particular time on Sunday, Rivers wasn’t prepared to beat himself up. But, Rivers’ disingenuous response was a marked change in tune from just weeks prior when his team was alive and well.
Balancing The Blame
Rivers certainly shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for his team’s collapse. He was severely hamstrung by his point guard having an out-of-body experience as he slipped into a shell of what he’d been all season and in the previous series. His best player averaged 7 turnovers per game over the last three battles of the series. The third leg of his core connected on below 35 percent of his field goal attempts over the same span.
Squeezing any sort of positive production from his bench was a guessing game on any given night. When that’s the case, there’s not much you can do. You’re limited to throwing random combinations of players out there to see what works. With that randomness, it’s very difficult to know which combination of four reserves and one starter will yield positive results. Rivers was forced to keep playing Dwight Howard instead of going small at center when Nate McMillan increased Onyeka Okongwu’s minutes. His roster lacked a legitimate perimeter creator to generate half-court offense. So, when the offense slogged, to whom was Rivers supposed to look for help? When the bench stunk the joint up, was he supposed to just play his starting unit the remainder of the game?
An Inflection Point
But, I do blame him for failing to prepare his team for game 1 of the series. He inserted his bench units at the wrong times. Rivers failed to get his team into good offensive sets when scores were few and far between. He elected to keep Simmons on the court as he bricked free throw after free throw and rapidly regressed into nothingness within the half-court offense.
Rivers certainly is not the headliner of why the Sixers failed. But, he had a very dissatisfying series against Nate McMillan and the Atlanta Hawks. He will have to do some self-reflecting on the road to picking up the pieces of this mess. He must return for the 2021-22 season better at his job. If he doesn’t, he might not make it to the third year of his five-year contract.