Doc, Celtics have been down this road

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Doc Rivers always hated the exhibition season as a player. The Celtics' coach vividly remembers one training camp in which his play was so uninspiring that his coach, Mike Fratello, told him: "If I didn't know you, I'd cut you. That's how bad you've been."

The previous season, Rivers had made the All-Star team.

Such is life in the NBA for the first three-plus weeks of October. For the Celtics, life so far in 2010-11 has been good in one respect -- there are no road games more than a one-hour flight away. For Rivers, who spent four-plus seasons as head coach of the Orlando Magic, that is huge. "It seems we never had a game closer than two to three hours away," he said of his days in Orlando. "That was brutal. Three-hour flights in preseason?"

Despite the easy travel, there are downsides to playing the Knicks, Nets, Sixers and Raptors twice each. One is that those teams are not very good; the recent poll of general managers had 100 percent of them agreeing that the Celtics would win the Atlantic Division. The other is that they all are teams in the Celtics' division who will play Boston four times each during the regular season.

So, really, what can we glean from the Celtics' summary disposal of the Sixers in Manchester, N.H.? Or from their squeaker over the Raptors on Sunday night?


"The one thing you cannot do in the exhibition season is use it as a guide as to how good you're going to be," Rivers said Monday after practice, before the team headed to Philadelphia for a rematch with the Sixers. "All the teams are using different combinations and trying different things."

That's true. Even if the Celtics were to play the Lakers, there's no assurance that Phil Jackson wouldn't rest Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol. The Sixers played without Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala; if they had shown, maybe Philly would have scored more than 22 points in the first half. Shaquille O'Neal won't play in the rematch with the Sixers and you can go to the bank that Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will miss at least one of the next two games (the Celtics play in New York on Wednesday night).

"I never put too much stock into who we played," Celtics GM Danny Ainge said of his exhibition-game memories. "It's more about establishing a rhythm, teamwise and individualwise, and for the coaches to figure out who plays well together and who fits."

One of the major potential nightmares in the exhibition season is travel. These Celtics won't go any farther than Toronto -- and they probably don't have any idea how lucky they are. In 1993, the Celtics opened the exhibition season in Fargo, N.D., against the Timberwolves and then played the very next night in Dayton, Ohio. There was a back-to-backer in 1991 with games in Denver and Ogden, Utah, and another back-to-backer in 1997 with games in State College, Pa., and Huntsville, Ala.

Other than the trip to Rome and London in 2007, the Celtics have played only three exhibition games outside of the Eastern time zone since Rivers came to town in 2004. Two of those were in Chicago, the coach's hometown. The third was the veritable travel-killer -- a one-game venture to Hidalgo, Texas, last year to play the Rockets. It was part of a deal arranged with Houston, which had traveled to Manchester the year before. This was the quid pro quo and Rivers vowed that he'd never do a trip like that again.

"Too long a plane flight," he said.

Said Ainge: "Doc likes things a certain way. I can see where a long flight for just one game [they turned around and played in Boston two nights later] could be disruptive to what he is trying to do. But it's also the exhibition season. So give some other guys the minutes."

Both Ainge and Rivers played in the day when teams traveled all over the country in the exhibition season and played rivals, sometimes too frequently. Rivers referenced an exhibition game against Indiana, months after the two teams had played each other in the playoffs.

"The game wasn't 30 seconds old before Chuck Person and Dominique [Wilkins] got into it," he said.

The Celtics and Lakers had an exhausting six-game series in the 1985 NBA Finals. Three and a half months later, they played four exhibition games against each other, one in Providence, R.I., one in Hartford, Conn., and two in Los Angeles. Tempers wore thin and, in the final game in Los Angeles, a fight erupted between Maurice Lucas and Robert Parish. (Lucas threw Parish over the press table.) Kevin McHale and Byron Scott also exchanged words (Scott got a technical).

There shouldn't be any of that in the next eight days. Everyone is on their best behavior in today's NBA, or so it seems. Rivers' sole concern is to figure out roles and rotations in time for the ultra-hyped, Oct. 26 season opener against the Miami Heat.

But, he was asked, would he have liked to have played the Lakers four times in October after having had such a tough series in June?

"If they want us to do that," he said, "let's all go to Hawaii and play the games there. I'm for that!"

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.