Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Doc Rivers and the ugly side of ubuntu
By Bill Simmons
Note to the reader: It's never a good idea to write anything when you're pissed off, whether it's a letter to an ex-girlfriend, an e-mail to your boss or, in this case, a sports column that will reach a national audience. To prove my point, here's a column I wrote the morning after Boston lost Game 4 to Cleveland. I'm not nearly as irate anymore and, truthfully, I never wanted to become the proverbial turd in the punch bowl for a successful Boston team. After all, that's Dan Shaughnessy's job. But when we remember this 2007-08 Celtics team -- however we end up remembering them -- it's important to note that, at one point in the second round, its fans felt so betrayed and frustrated that one of them tried to capture his feelings with an appallingly vindictive column, even if that same fan cooled down a few hours later thanks to four shots of whiskey and a couple of Vicodin.
Twenty-four hours later, I have talked myself into the Celtics pulling out this series simply because the Boston crowd can't and won't let the Celtics falter in Games 5 and 7. (At least, that's what I keep telling myself. Just humor me.) Hopefully what you're about to read will become a footnote to a championship season, the day things sunk so low that one of the team's most avid fans briefly lost his mind before regrouping and continuing to support the team for the rest of the playoffs. Without further ado ...
You know how ABC and TNT have been showing clips of pregame speeches before NBA playoff games? Like everyone else, those clips always leave me wanting more. Fortunately, I had a vision while sleeping that allowed me to see Doc Rivers' entire pregame speech before tonight's Game 5 between the Celtics and Cavaliers:
(We see Doc standing in front of his players, all of whom are sitting in front of their lockers and preparing to head out for the game.)
All right, guys, listen up. I want to go over the game plan so we're clear on everything.
We have a game plan tonight?
Absolutely! We're trying something different. Tom Thibodeau and I were up late last night trying to come up with a new wrinkle for tonight.
Um, we only talked about it for 10 minutes, then you said you had to go because you were taking your wife to "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."
Well, same thing. Before we get to tonight's plan, I want to apologize to our bench guys for coaching us one way for 82 games, then changing things in the playoffs, yanking everyone around and killing your collective confidence to the point that you're all useless except for Posey. If it makes you feel any better, I did the same thing in 2005 when I blew a series against an undermanned Pacers team that beat us with a washed-up Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal playing with one shoulder. I just can't help myself. I'm a big hockey fan and sometimes I get overexcited during the playoffs and think that we have to change lines every few minutes. Again, I'm sorry.
EDDIE HOUSE (excited):
Does that mean we're back to the old rotation?
Not exactly, Eddie. I know we're something like 61-12 with you as our backup point guard, and I know Sam [Cassell] has been murdering us to the point that one of our owners asked me if he was "The Mole" last week. But let's keep things the way they are for one more game. To be honest, I really enjoy the expression on some of your faces when I don't play you in the first half, then you've checked out of the game mentally and suddenly I'm looking at you and telling you to go in. Let's keep that going as long as we can.
What about me? Am I out?
No way, Sam. You give us veteran experience down the stretch -- sure, it's been the experience of blowing playoff games against inferior teams, but, still, it's an experience. And honestly, I think you give us the best chance to completely destroy Rondo's confidence for the season. We aren't quite there yet and I feel like there's more damage that can be done.
Coach, no offense, but my confidence is destroyed. Every time I do something wrong, I look over at the bench now because I think Sam is coming in.
(Doc studies him intently for a second.)
Nahhhhhh ... I don't believe you. If we end up losing to Cleveland, I'm gonna need to start blaming people, and if I tell people that we lost because "our young guys just didn't have enough experience," my lackeys covering this team might actually buy it. I need a 10-turnover game from you, Rajon, and I need it soon. Sam, you just keep doing what you're doing -- hogging the ball, taking us out of our offense, forcing horrible shots and yelling at your teammates if they do anything wrong.
You got it, coach.
All right, let's talk about our offense. We won 66 games by always making the extra pass, running on every rebound and getting easy baskets. In the playoffs, we've gone into "I gotta get mine" mode -- the ball is constantly stopping, and everyone is either firing up 20-footers or trying to take their guy one on one. Again, it's the complete opposite of how we've played all season--.
Coach, can I say something?
Sure, James, go ahead.
I'm the only Celtic who's won a title other than Sam, so I feel like I know what I'm taking about here. The playoffs are all about matchups. Atlanta didn't have a single guy who could defend KG, but we never really exploited that. Against Cleveland, we should be attacking Szczerbiak with whoever he's guarding; that dude couldn't guard Oprah at this point. When they play Boobie Gibson and Delonte West at the same time, we should be going bigger with Paul [Pierce] at the 2 so he can post those guys up and punish them. When they put Ilgauskas on KG, we should be clearing out for KG so he can just go right by him every time. Big Z moves like a mummy; he can't handle KG facing up. I mean, it's all common sense, right?
(Doc nods slowly but seems confused.)
I don't want to toot my own horn, but I give us the best chance to beat Cleveland because I defend LeBron so well. We have to go small against Cleveland -- our best lineup against Cleveland is me, KG, Ray, Rondo and Paul playing the 4 because none of their forwards are good enough to post up Paul, but he can make them pay on the other end. We need to force them to adapt to us instead of constantly reacting to what they're doing. That's what winning teams do.
Wait a second ... so if we put the right personnel out there, then I won't be able to over-coach and pull KG 25 feet from the basket to passive-aggressively double-team LeBron so KG can't rebound or protect the rim?
I don't know if I agree with you, James. Look at what happened in the Atlanta series -- Joe Johnson got hot in the fourth quarter of Game 4 because I left our worst defender on him for the entire time, so I overreacted by changing our defensive schemes, using passive-aggressive traps to "contain" Johnson and leaving their other guys wide open all game, and they ended up shooting 47 free throws in Game 6 because we were always one step behind every time the ball moved. Some people said I overcoached, but if we won conventionally, how would I get credit for that? They'd just say anyone could have coached you guys. Besides, you can't say it's not working -- we're 6-0 at home in the playoffs! We've won 72 games!
I guess ...
Coach, I gotta speak up. Maybe I haven't won a title, but I've been around the league forever and have a pretty good feel for what works and doesn't work at this point. I don't mean to step on your toes, but it's not a good idea in a close playoff game on the road to play a lineup of guys who have never played together before. In Game 4, I started the fourth quarter with Big Baby, Posey, Pierce and Sam -- the only other time I've interacted with those guys as a quintet was when we ordered the "Family Dinner" at Maggiano's three weeks ago.
So what are you saying?
In the playoffs, you kinda want to go with what's worked in the past, you know?
You're saying I should scrap my plans to start the fourth quarter by playing Rondo, Sam and Eddie at the same time tonight? I really thought that would catch them off guard. Three point guards! There's no way they'd expect that!
Nah, it's not a good idea.
You just wait. Paul, let's talk about you -- you made third-team all-NBA by playing efficient, unselfish, all-around basketball and repeatedly getting to the rim, and you had a real knack for coming up with big rebounds in big moments. Then the playoffs started and you stopped rebounding or getting to the line and now I'm using you as our defensive stopper on LeBron even though we have Posey and even though you never play well against LeBron because you guys have that dumb feud that always knocks you out of your game. But no matter how badly you're stinking out the joint right now, and no matter how much it looks like you have mono or something, I want you to know something -- I'm not telling you to change a damned thing. You'll figure it out. You're a winner and you've been here before.
Actually, that's not true -- I've only won four playoff series in my entire career.
Yeah, I'm not a winner, either. I've only made the conference finals once. Even in college, I didn't win. The only big victory I've ever had was the time I housed Denzel in "He Got Game."
(Doc seems completely confused.)
While we're coming clean, I haven't won anything either -- I've won five playoff series in 13 years.
Seriously? Wow! (Shaking his head.) I didn't realize that. I'm stunned right now.
It's easy to think we've won something because we've been giving interviews about winning for eight straight months to everyone with a camera or a microphone, and we've been allowing people to call us the "Big Three" even though Boston already had a "Big Three" that won three titles, and I have that Gatorade commercial that makes it seem like I've won something, and I just did that interview with Bill Russell where we talked about winning ...
Have any of you even played in the Finals?
Doc, you didn't notice that we play totally different when we're up 20 than when we're up one? I can't speak for the other guys, but I have so much adrenaline going in close games that I practically black out. In fact, I can't even remember what happened in the last few minutes of Game 4 against Atlanta. I remember someone called a timeout, and the next thing I knew I was on the plane eating peanuts.
Yeah, maybe we should stop giving so many interviews about winning until we come through on the road one time.
Don't be crazy, we need the media! Hell, I butchered the 2005 playoffs, coached an underachieving team in 2006, and lost 18 straight games in 2007 -- the only reason I kept my job is because the media loves me. You gotta take care of those guys. That's the key to everything!
Well, let's stop using the phrase "Big Three" then. I'm not that type of player anymore -- really, I'm a spot-up jump shooter and that's it, and if I don't have my legs for a road game, I'm useless. There's not a ton of difference between me and Szczerbiak at this point. Two years from now, they'll be changing my name to "Ray Allen's Expiring Contract" unless somebody gives me a bionic pair of ankles.
What are you suggesting?
Instead of "The Big Three," couldn't they just call us "The Big Two Featuring Ray Allen?" That would take a ton of pressure off me.
Excuse me, Ray, I gotta say something else. When I played for Pat Riley, we hated his guts. But he did coach us. In the Finals, he kept pushing D-Wade to get to the rim and yelling at him to be a man and telling him nobody on Dallas could guard him. He got D-Wade so fired up, I think he was getting to the line 25 times a game. Doc, you could be motivating KG that way and you're not even trying.
KG should have destroyed Atlanta, and he should be killing everyone on Cleveland except for maybe Varejao, and yet he disappeared in Atlanta and Rondo took more shots than him in Game 4 at Cleveland. That's ridiculous. KG, you take pride in being so unselfish, but we need you to be selfish sometimes, you know? And Doc, part of your job is to make KG do the things we need him to do. That's called "coaching," you know? When Ray broke the play for KG at the end of Game 4 in Atlanta, defied your orders and bricked an off-balance three when we only needed two to tie, you didn't stand up to him, bench him or anything. That's called "coaching." Coaching is simple -- your job is to motivate your players and put them in the best position to succeed. That's it.
So you're saying I should be pushing and prodding and challenging the Big Three?
"The Big Two Featuring Ray Allen."
Sorry, "The Big Two Featuring Ray Allen," instead of not laying any blame on them whatsoever, then blaming every loss on the referees, or our defensive schemes breaking down, or our young guys not listening, or us not getting a certain bounce ...
Exactly. Look, KG, you're my boy and I love you. When I hug you right before every tipoff, I hold onto you so tightly that it makes everyone in the first few rows legitimately uncomfortable. But everyone needs to be coached sometimes, and really, you haven't had a good coach your entire career.
James, I'm right here. I can hear everything.
Sorry, but it's true. KG, listen, it's OK to take 27 shots in a playoff game if you have Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia and some dude named "Solomon" guarding you. It's OK to complain that it's stupid to be pulling our best rebounder and shot blocker 25 feet from the basket and wearing his legs out for a gimmicky double-team that we don't even need to be doing. It's OK to call for the ball because Ben Wallace's dead body is defending you. Anyone who's ever won a title, to some degree, has been a little selfish. What you do as a player and a teammate is absolutely fantastic in the regular season, but the playoffs are different -- sometimes, you have to take over these games. You make $23 million a year. You're the most talented guy on the team. If you don't step up, we'll either lose this series or Detroit will beat us. You need to step up the same way Duncan steps up every time the Spurs need him. You need to step up. Is it in you?
(KG turns to the camera intensely and takes a big swig of Gatorade.)
Kevin, was that a "yes" or a "no?"
GARNETT: Fine, fine, I'll step up. Is this almost over? I promised TNT that I'd give them three minutes before the game to talk about how much winning means to me. You know, as long as I can win without going within 10 feet of the basket in close games.
DOC: Sure, we're almost done. Tom, you have anything to add?
(We see Thibodeau sitting in the corner working on his resume for the Phoenix and Chicago jobs. He glances up.)
THIBODEAU: No, I think we hit everything.
DOC: Fellas, I want you to know that I'm gonna keep doing the same things I've done for the entire playoffs -- showing you guys up on the sidelines after every mistake, blaming everyone but myself after we lose, making crazy adjustments that have no relation to one another from game to game, yanking our rotation around, losing my composure with referees in pivotal moments, and throwing you guys under the bus to the TNT announcers between games when they ask me why you aren't playing.
LEON POWE: Wait, is that how Mike Fratello knew about the five defensive assignments that I blew during Game 2 of the Atlanta series?
DOC: Yup. Sorry, Leon. I gotta cover my own *** with the press. You understand.
LEON: Well, not really.
DOC: Shut up. One last thing ...
(Doc glances at the TNT camera to make sure it's still recording.)
DOC (more animated): I want you to leave everything you have on the court tonight. Play hard, feed off the energy of the crowd, and if we take a big lead, don't be afraid to pound your chest, scream at the roof, tug at your jersey, bully scrubs who won't fight back and do everything possible to add to your reputation as a bunch of front-running a-holes who act totally different when they're up 20 points than they do when they're down by three. If we lock this game up early, do whatever you need to do to get yourself some attention, even if it ends up ticking off the Cavs and motivating them for Game 6.
TEAM (together): Got it.
DOC: Everybody gather in.
(The team stands up and moves into a tight circle.)
DOC: Guys, we have a chance to make history here. We can become the first NBA team to win a championship with an 0-12 record on the road. It's right there for the taking. On three ...
(Everyone sticks a hand in the circle.)
DOC and TEAM: One, two, three ...UBUNTU!
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.