Doc Rivers has tough road ahead

BOSTON -- Now comes the tricky part.

There has been no greater Boston sports love affair in recent years than the relationship between Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett, the player who revived the championship culture for a franchise that was once steeped in titles but had lost its way before he bounded onto the scene.

As KG left the parquet Friday night following his team's Game 6 loss to the New York Knicks, perhaps for the final time, he embraced Rivers and told him, "I love you, man."

We don't know if KG is retiring, returning or looking to move on to a reduced role with a contender. He holds all the cards regarding his future, including a no-trade clause that enables him to determine his landing spot.

We do know this: The day Garnett leaves Boston, Rivers' job becomes infinitely more difficult.

Not only does KG demand excellence of himself and his teammates, and not only does he put a premium on defense the way the great Bill Russell once did, and not only was he the most selfless superstar this market has ever seen, but his total trust in Rivers provided the coach with ultimate credibility. KG has had Doc's back since he came to town, which resonated in a locker room full of divergent -- and sometimes conflicting -- personalities.

Of course, Doc has done a fine job of building his résumé all on his own by requiring professionalism and accountability from his players without ever embarrassing them, a trait he and old pal Terry Francona both mastered.

Not only has Doc endeared himself to the members of his own roster, but he has managed to maintain a congenial relationship with opposing players as well, a handy benefit when it comes time to troll for free agents.

Doc is a proven players' coach, a bona fide draw in a market that has never been able to attract free agents. Jason Terry, in fact, said Rivers was the primary reason he chose Boston over other suitors.

You've forgotten, haven't you, that, once upon a time, Rivers was a Celtics coach who presided over an 18-game losing streak, a family man who refrained from moving his wife and children to Boston, preferring to commute to and from Orlando, Fla., to maintain the balance he felt was critical to the people who mattered most to him.

His owners didn't like it, especially after the team was on the outside looking in at the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Rivers came under fire for his in-game tactics, his rotations, his tendency to lean on his veterans.

But then Ray Allen was acquired, KG followed, and everything changed. The New Three was born, and the Celtics were "championship driven" again. Within one season's time, they all were wearing title rings.

They returned to the Finals in 2010 and nearly won again and came within a game last season of upsetting the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

By then, Rivers was recognized as an elite coach and had stunned everyone by signing a five-year extension that would keep him in Boston through the 2015-16 season.

Here's how Rivers described his decision to lock up a long-term deal in spite of an aging roster on WEEI radio in May 2011:

"My thing is, I have a special team and a special group of players, and why change?" he said. "I look at the Utah situation and Jerry Sloan, and I look at the situation in San Antonio, and [head of basketball operations Danny Ainge] and I were talking. Those are the two most stable franchises because they've had the same coaches and the same GM and the same ownership, and they've been able to draft well, scout well, pick the right players for the system because they've known the system. That's what we want to do."

Rivers was asked if he was prepared for the rebuilding process that was going to be inevitable as Allen, Paul Pierce and Garnett were in decline.

"Well, I don't think anyone is looking forward to that, but I'm willing to do that," Rivers said. "I've had a group that has been very loyal to me, and I think it would have been very easy for me to just run and go somewhere else and chase something else. … I just don't think that's the right thing to do. Coaches talk about loyalty and team, and I just thought it was time to show it."

That Rivers declined to be a mercenary, which was within his rights after his success in Boston, was both refreshing and mildly surprising. Had Doc taken a year off from coaching and entertained us with his musings either in the TNT booth or on the ESPN airwaves, he would have returned after his sabbatical as the most coveted coach in the league.

He could have had his pick of jobs.

Instead, he's locked up with Boston for another three years with a team that is in flux. Rivers is being handsomely compensated, but he will earn his salary during the next three seasons as the team reinvents itself.

Will Rajon Rondo unequivocally back Rivers the way KG always has? Boston's mercurial point guard has endured his share of tough love from Doc, who called him into his office one day early in his career and told his point guard, "Do you realize none of your teammates can stand you?"

Some have read into Doc's ambivalent postgame comments Friday about his future as a sign he won't be back. In reality, they are merely the words of an exhausted coach who has been trying to wring everything he can out of a damaged roster that was reduced to a skeleton crew after injuries to Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa.

Rivers is a man of his word, and he promised Ainge he would help with the rebuilding process. Whether he completes all three of the years remaining on his deal remains to be seen, but it's nearly impossible to fathom him walking away at this juncture.

Pressed by a small group of reporters late Friday night, Rivers said his future is not tied to the decisions of Pierce or KG.

"Mine is a completely separate thing," Rivers said. "I'm coming back until I say I'm not."

Translated: Expect to see Rivers on the sideline next season.

It is unclear who will be there with him. He is in the difficult position of knowing he needs to move on from his beloved veterans but must demonstrate the proper amount of respect and loyalty toward them.

It may behoove the Celtics to hang on to Pierce and Garnett next season until the trade deadline, which is when demand will peak and teams intent on making a splash in the postseason should be willing to give up a little more. If so, it will be imperative for Rivers to limit their playing time to the 20- to 25-minute range.

Ainge will absorb his share of criticism in the weeks ahead for hanging on to Pierce and KG too long, but in last February's proposed deal from the Clippers, who desperately wanted KG, the so-called "prize" would have been big man DeAndre Jordan, who has earned the distinction of being the biggest bust of the 2013 playoffs. If you are a Celtics fan, be grateful that deal was not consummated.

Those who swear by Doc believe he could extract more out of Jordan than Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers did. They point to the progress of Jeff Green and the belief that Avery Bradley, whose surgically repaired shoulders gave him fits in the final month of the season, will benefit from an offseason of training under the dutiful eye of the Celtics staff.

Doc loves Sullinger, is clearly conflicted about Courtney Lee and roots for Terry.

They are all nice players.

But they are not KG.

And for the coach, that could mean a whole new ballgame.