In the world of coaching, patience is not merely a virtue. Sometimes, it is a requirement.
Particularly when things might get a little worse before they get better.
"I think sometimes you’ve got to wait on your team and sometimes you’ve got to push your team,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in a secluded corner of the locker room Wednesday night, shortly after an 89-85 loss to the Houston Rockets, his team's sixth defeat in the last eight games. "I think right now, this is one of those stretches you’ve got to push 'em in practice and you got to wait on ‘em in the game. You’ve got to wait on 'em to do all the right stuff that they know they can do."
And so, as the wait extends, the weight builds.
Once the possessors of a sterling 27-2 record -- the best 29-game start in NBA history -- the Celtics are now 29-8 entering tonight’s reunion with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. The Cavs have the best record in the NBA. The Cavs have not lost at home this season. While going a perfect 18-0 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland has defeated its opponents by the average score of 105-89, staking its claim as Boston’s primary threat in an Eastern Conference that generally has looked like a two-horse race.
At the moment, this meeting has the makings of a potential Cleveland landslide.
But then, there’s a reason the games are played.
A picture of patience throughout his time in Boston, Rivers is now as he was then: unshaken. Two years ago at this time, the Celtics had just begun a club record 18-game losing streak that ultimately produced 22 losses in 23 games, a stretch that forever altered team history. As a result of the nosedive, the Celtics thrust themselves into contention for the No. 1 overall selection and ended up with the second-worst record in the league. In one manner or another, the fallout led to the ground-shaking events that brought Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and, as it turned out, championship No. 17 to Boston.
Maybe that is why Rivers looks at the Celtics’ recent dive and shows not a hint of concern.
After all, he has been through much, much worse and come out quite well off.
"I wasn’t that [patient] as a player and I probably wasn’t that way as a coach early on in Orlando,’’ Rivers admitted. "At the end of the day, you just kind of evolve into that, and I think that’s the best way to be."
Truth be told, the problems with the Celtics of late might be easier than one might guess. For the good of his team, Rivers just isn’t the kind to say it. Entering the Christmas Day defeat to the Lakers in Los Angeles -- the one that started this slump -- point guard Rajon Rondo had been playing like an All-Star. But during the six recent losses, Rondo has shot 21 of 54 (38.9 percent) with a disturbing ratio of 42 assists to 25 turnovers. Against Houston Wednesday, Rondo took just four shots and had four of his five assists during an aberrational Celtics burst late in the fourth quarter.
The rest of the night, Rondo had one assist; in the final three quarters, the Celtics scored 54 points. For all of the emphasis the Celtics internally have placed on defense -- they believe that defense triggers their offense -- they have averaged 89.5 points in their most recent six losses and only once scored as many as 90 points. That instance came in Tuesday’s 114-106 loss at Charlotte, a game that went into overtime.
And then there is this: In those same six losses, the Celtics have been outscored by 54 points in the second half. Their inability to execute in the fourth quarter, in particular, has evoked memories of the pre-K(G) Celtics, a young and spirited group that lacked the discipline, experience and, yes, talent to close out games.
Much of that reflects poorly on the point guard, only fueling speculation about Stephon Marbury.
Through it all, of course, Rivers has remained typically levelheaded, though that should hardly come as a surprise. Where many coaches might have started to tighten their grip, Rivers instead has elected to loosen it some. The Celtics might have practiced yesterday in anticipation of tonight’s affair with the Cavs, but Rivers instead opted to give his team the day off in the wake of a travel and game schedule that has had the club running ragged for the last few weeks.
Maybe this why Celtics players last season spoke of Rivers’s ability to recognize them as human beings first and basketball players second.
"Since Dec. 23, I think we’ve been home a total of three days,’’ Rivers said. "Let them go home and see their wives, their families.’’
In Boston, especially, the job of manager or coach is a tenuous position at best, a fact for which Rivers serves as Exhibit A. Two years ago, amid a talent shortage and mounting frustration, some called for his dismissal. Last summer, we were all marveling at how Rivers, before the season even began, took some of his players on a tour of the city’s championship parade route. Now the Celtics are certifiable contenders and Rivers rests somewhere in between, a man who has an entire city’s trust and the utmost confidence in his team, the kind of balance that every club strives for, particularly at the most challenging times.
"I get irritated with 'em in some ways but it’s in practice. I would tell you that they would say if I go off, it’s in practice and that’s where we do most of our teaching,’’ Rivers said when asked if the play of his team ever angers him. "If I don’t think we’re doing something right or if they don’t think something is important in the execution phase of our defense, that’s when they hear me.
:The only time I get upset [in games] is if I think we don’t play with the right team spirit. And that happens,’’ continued the coach. "I didn’t think we played hard in a couple of [recent] losses because of fatigue or whatever -- I thought we got out-hustled -- but as far as positive spirit and guys playing for purpose of winning, I think we’ve pretty much maintained that. We just got to maintain that.’’
In the interim, Rivers does what a most reasonable and confident man would do.
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