LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers has an idea of how he wants the Los Angeles Clippers to look at some point in the near future.
All he had to do Monday night was look across the court at the architect and blueprint of that vision.
“San Antonio is the gold standard,” Rivers said. “They’ve been that way for a long time.”
On Monday, the Clippers handily defeated the league’s gold standard San Antonio Spurs 115-92, notching their biggest win of the season in the process. That win, as impressive as it might have been, doesn't mean much in the big scheme of things if you listened to Rivers after the game.
It’s a harsh reality that comes with striving for a standard greater than big wins against big teams in the regular season. As nice as they are, there’s always another game against another team that’s just as important when they tally the final records and seed teams at the end of the season.
“It was big test, but we’ll have another one soon,” Rivers said. “You keep having tests all year, and then you have more during the playoffs. Tests never stop. You pass a test and that doesn’t mean you have any time to feel good about it.”
It’s no coincidence Rivers' comments after the game mirrored those of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who contends he doesn’t place much emphasis on wins and losses during the season. Rivers and Popovich developed a bond when both were in San Antonio nearly 20 years ago.
Rivers was there as a player for the final two seasons of his career, from 1994 to 1996, and Popovich was the general manager during that time before eventually becoming the head coach.
“He was around quite a bit,” Rivers said of Popovich. “You just loved how he worked the organization. It was very helpful for me. You knew he was going to coach, but you never knew he was going to coach like this. You knew what he stood for. You always thought he was going to be really good, but what he has done is amazing.”
Rivers and Popovich still speak frequently. Popovich called Rivers in the offseason to ask him about approaching the new season after losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road, while Rivers called Popovich last week to ask him about signing Stephen Jackson, whom Popovich jettisoned before the end of last season.
“He’s terrific,” Rivers said. “The best coach, other than Phil Jackson, in NBA history. It’s Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. They also have a pretty good guy in Tim Duncan, who’s probably the best power forward to ever play the game, and then they have [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginobli. They’ve done a great job building around their core. They’ll move guys around those three, but they don’t move the core. They bring guys in that accent the core. They make the core better and make themselves individually better. Pop is the best there’s ever been in making you buy into their system. He changes his system, but you’re going to buy into it or you’re not going to play.”
How Popovich and Rivers get their players to buy into their systems is similar. They are able to connect with players in a way that makes them “players' coaches” but not pushovers. They are able to joke with players without being the butt of their jokes. They are able to get them to follow their lead without having them questioning their decisions every step of the way.
“With both of us, I think a sense of humor is huge,” Popovich said. “I think we both enjoy screwing with the guys, basically: sticking it to them, giving them some static, and they give it back to us. People who can laugh at themselves and have a good time during the season are fun to be around. We both enjoy players who can do that and I think we both have players who have senses of humor, and it’s an important thing to get you through the season. I think we both enjoy that and we both believe it begins with the defense. The better your defense gets, the better team you’re going to have, and we’re both persistent enough to demand it throughout the whole year and win the battle with the player in that regard. In those respects we’re very similar.”
As much as Rivers would like to see the Clippers copy the Spurs’ blueprint, he understands the Spurs’ core has been playing together for more than a decade, while the Clippers are still trying to piece together a core that can win a title. Rivers can see glimpses of that potential title team but knows they're not there yet.
“You can see us improving. You can see it coming,” Rivers said. “We don’t do it all the time. On offense, we don’t play with pace all the time; we don’t move the ball all the time. On defense, we don’t pull in all the time, but we are recognizing when we don’t do it faster now. The next step will be doing it all the time. We are consistency away from being a special team, but we’re just not there yet. I’m not that concerned. ... It just comes. It takes habit and trust and habit and trust again. It’s just something we have to get. If we don’t get it, we’re not going anywhere. If we get, we can be a really good team.”