Amid the many gloomy forecasts about their Game 7 chances without the fallen Kendrick Perkins, Bostonians might have been able to glean some needed encouragement in one of Doc Rivers’ answers during Wednesday's media session.
Not to suggest that this was any sort of binding sentiment, but Doc didn’t especially sound like a guy getting ready to walk away from his job when someone asked him about the possibility that Game 7 could be the last hurrah for these Celtics as we know them.
“Well, I hope not,“ Rivers said. “Obviously I'm not sure. I do think -- and I've said this before -- that I think we're going to be better in some ways next year because Kevin [Garnett] will be healthier, if you know what I'm saying. It's always a year removed from surgery that you have your best year. You know, we obviously have to sign Ray [Allen]. Rasheed has to come back and all that stuff. So there's a lot of variables.”
Given that Rivers came into this series openly acknowledging the possibility that he might soon be taking an indefinite leave from the coaching business, any talk about next season has to be at least somewhat promising for the Celts.
Deep down, though, everyone around this team understands the reality. Doc has three kids who are elite athletes in either high school or college and he desperately wants to see them play more often. He’s also about to lose trusted defensive coordinator Tom Thibodeau to the Chicago Bulls and is certainly well aware that Garnett is 34, Paul Pierce is 32 and Allen is 34 and headed for free agency.
There’s no shortage of signs pointing to the likelihood that Game 7 will be Rivers’ last on the Boston bench, as numerous NBA coaching sources continue to insist no matter what is being said at off-day news conferences.
Where will the Celtics turn if this is indeed Doc’s swansong?
As noted in this cyberspace more than once recently, sources consistently volunteer NBA TV’s Kevin McHale as Rivers’ most likely successor. Although it’ll be interesting to see what sort of endorsement McHale gets from Garnett after their frosty final days together in Minnesota, McHale’s looming candidacy stems not only from his Boston ties but because no former teammate of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is closer to Ainge than McHale. (Wisecracks are already circulating, mind you, about Ainge needing to hire McHale to properly repay him for the KG trade.)
The only other two names to gain any traction so far: Massachusetts native Vinny Del Negro (another ex-teammate Ainge is known to be fond of) and underrated Celtics assistant coach Armond Hill (although there are suspicions Celts ownership will insist on someone with a higher profile).
Perhaps more candidates will surface, but this much is already certain: You already feel for the guy who has to follow Doc’s act. This has been, win or lose Thursday night, his finest coaching job in Boston, keeping this aging, brittle and highly volatile group unified in the face of a 27-27 record after Christmas and a playoff path that, in order, lined the Celtics up against Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: Not even San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich or the Lakers’ Phil Jackson connects with his best players as well as Rivers consistently gets buy-ins from Garnett, Pierce, Allen and emerging face of the franchise Rajon Rondo. Besides the actual talent, of course, nothing is more important in modern coaching than getting players to buy in.
You can always find specialist assistants to supply the right Xs and Os. But NBA coaches never overcome a lack of talent or a lack of support from their stars. The formula that has pitched Rivers into the Pop-and-Phil stratosphere over the past few seasons is simple: Boston has players now … and Rivers quickly and eternally won their trust.
Which is why the Celts -- even if they become just the fourth road team ever to win a Game 7 in the NBA Finals -- could still lose big at Staples Center.
If Rivers was just being polite with the next-year stuff and is really gonzo, Boston will soon be saying farewell to the best leader of men on the NBA map.
I would argue that it’s a title even the coach with 10 rings, after this thoroughly unexpected ride to the brink of a second championship in three years, can’t wrest from Rivers.