A little more than a month ago, Austin Rivers was at home, out of the NBA and waiting on his phone to ring for another chance.
On Thursday night, Rivers was at the forefront of a pivotal NBA playoff game, scoring 16 of his 21 points in a supercharged fourth quarter to help power the Denver Nuggets to a 120-115 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3.
The win gave the Nuggets a 2-1 series lead.
"I sat there for like a month and a half, waiting on the phone to ring. I just put my faith in God, having conversations with myself, talking to God like, 'What's the plan? What's going to happen?'" Rivers said. "All the feedback I kept getting is, a lot of teams liked me but they didn't know what type of character I was and how I'd be in their locker room. My basketball ability was never questioned; it was who I was as a person. Which is actually even worse.
"Truthfully, it broke my heart. Because I know who I am, and I've always had good relationships with people, but you can have one instance with mistakes and be labeled something."
Rivers spent time waiting for that call after he was traded at the deadline from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-team deal and then waived. He signed a 10-day deal with Denver on April 20, a week after star point guard Jamal Murray tore an ACL and was set to miss the remainder of the season. Rivers signed for the rest of the season on April 30.
"Couldn't be happier for the kid," coach Michael Malone said. "I just told our team, think about this -- guy was sitting at home for 2½ months waiting for his phone to ring. And it wasn't ringing. That to me is crazy to even think about. Austin Rivers is a good player. He's played in 45 playoff games prior to this season, and it just worked out for him and us that he's here."
The son of Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, Austin has had a high-profile basketball career, starting with being a highly sought-after recruit, eventually signing with Duke. He was drafted 10th overall in 2012 by the New Orleans Pelicans but eventually joined the LA Clippers to play for his father in 2015. In 2018, he was traded to the Wizards, then dealt to the Suns and waived, before signing with the Houston Rockets. He signed with the Knicks before this season, appearing in 21 games before he was traded.
"This game can bring you to the lowest feeling in the world. I swear, some nights you can feel so low," Rivers said. "And then this game can make you feel so good about yourself, too. It's a beautiful game."
Rivers didn't want to elaborate on what kept him out of the league, but he did hint at a specific incident earlier in his career that has followed him around. The time away from the game gave him plenty of opportunity to reflect on himself, and how he could put it behind him.
"It was a humbling experience," he said. "But it's made me a better player. It's made me a better person."
In Game 3, with 5 minutes, 55 seconds to go, the score was 91-91, setting up a prime opportunity for a heavy dose of Dame Time from Lillard, but it was Rivers who flipped the script, hitting four 3s in the final six minutes.
"Funny thing is, he scored 16 points in that fourth quarter, shooting into a really big basket. Prior to that, I felt he was turning down open shots," Malone said. "He wasn't shooting the ball. I said to him three or four times, 'Austin, let it go, let it fly, shoot the ball when you're open.' And eventually in that fourth quarter, he did."
The patchwork nature of the Nuggets' backcourt has been a shining example of the culture of resiliency and toughness Malone has installed in his group. It's not only Rivers, but critical minutes from 30-year-old rookie Facundo Campazzo, two-way player Shaquille Harrison and undrafted rookie two-way player Markus Howard.
"We're a resilient group, we're a tough group and we're like the Statue of Liberty, man -- we take everybody," Malone said. "You come here, if you can bring something to the table to help us win a game, we're gonna throw you out there."
Since the injury to Murray, the Nuggets have searched for complementary scoring to likely MVP Nikola Jokic, leaning on a collection of players on any given night. But with the Blazers scheming the Nuggets with a plan to not double-team Jokic, it has put the focus on Denver's role players to step up.
Jokic has delivered scoring in largely single coverage throughout the series, dropping another 36 points on 12-of-24 shooting, but the additional scoring from unexpected places has been the difference the past two games.
The Nuggets reclaimed home-court advantage with their win in Portland, establishing momentum in the series as the early adjustments have countered the Blazers' defensive game plan. In part, it has been a simple answer: Like Rivers did on Thursday, trust players to make plays and make shots.
"Fighting is something we develop as a Nuggets organization," Jokic said. "We're gonna get on your nerves."