Every great comedian knows that the best jokes come from the worst pain. Doc Rivers isn’t a comic but he tried his turn at wit when asked about Kobe Bryant’s last game at Staples, in front of Clippers fans, to be played Tuesday night. He said,”I’ll be very happy when Kobe retires. He’s inflicted pain on me.” Doc was only half joking. Kobe dishing out punishment on Doc Rivers is the recurring theme to the game 7 NBA Finals Glenn Rivers Horror Show film that has never been viewed in the Rivers household.
On June 17, 2010, Doc was left holding nothing but misery and regret and a sad team and a lot of what ifs. What if Kendrick Perkins hadn’t been hurt? What if the Celtics won game 6 when they were up 3-2? What if less attention on Kobe and more attention on Derek Fisher in the fourth quarter of game 3? What about all those Kobe rebounds? How does a banged up, one legged, broken finger player grab more rebounds than everyone on the Celtics, whose calling card is toughness?
It still haunts Rivers to this day, what happened after the C’s had a 13 point lead. As Kobe recently told reporters during Boston’s recent visit to play the Lakers, his body was broken. He had his knee drained, a broken finger and a variety of other injuries Gary Vitti repeatedly kept patching up but he had 15 boards, more than any other Celtic, and he made the key play to Metta World Peace because he just had to. Bryant would nurse a torturous psyche for the rest of his life if he lost to the Celtics twice in the Finals. That was shame personified that he refused to claim as his private burden. Instead, it was passed on to Doc Rivers.
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And so the two men collide tonight in Kobe’s last appearance in front of the Staples Center Clippers crowd, that 2010 Lakers title banner covered up. But even as that game represents the epicenter of Rivers grand heartbreak, there were other Kobe moments that Doc Rivers had to just stand there and grit his teeth through. Kobe took 47 shots in a game once and Doc almost pulled Paul Pierce off of him until Pierce begged him not to.
“So we come into the huddle during a timeout and Coach is looking at me with a face that I know meant he wanted me to switch off of Kobe. And the rest of the guys on the team could see what was happening and they were looking at me too. Finally, they bring up that maybe we should switch and put a different guy on him and I yelled ‘Hell no. I got this.’ ” (Paul Pierce, The Players Tribune)
It made the Celtics rivalry special because Inglewood nurtured Paul Pierce and L.A. adopted Kobe Bryant and the two of them, The Truth and the Black Mamba, competed against each other as if more than a game or one-upmanship was at stake. It was always life and death. For Doc Rivers too.
Kobe Bryant played a Doc Rivers coached team 40 times in the regular season and playoffs. He scored over 1000 points, pulled 225 rebounds, dished 196 assists and shot a below Bryant career average of 42%. Doc was one of the few coaches who found a way to make Bryant’s volume shooting work against him but Doc never had an answer for Bryant’s ability to rebound the ball when it mattered the most, such as in game 7 in 2010. It cost Doc Rivers and his Boston crew the luxury of saying we won two titles in three years. It is still a moment of failed disappointment in the Doc Rivers coaching bio.
Twenty years is a long time for a player to be in the league but Doc has been a coach for nearly that long, beginning his career when Bryant won his first title in the 1999-2000 season. The only year Doc didn’t coach against Kobe was when he was away from basketball in the 2003-04 year and when Kobe missed most of the season in 2013-14. Other than that, year in and year out, Doc has had to scheme against him.
Doc won’t miss him at all. Why would you miss the person who cut you with a knife, watched you bleed and then celebrated while standing over your carcass? Rivers noted how Bryant has inflicted pain on the entire league and then in a serious moment said, “It’s remarkable how long he’s played, how well he’s played and that part, you’ll miss seeing. But I won’t actually miss him playing. No I’m tired of seeing him play. He’s played too well.”
Rivers was denied the opportunity to compete for a title when he was a player. Each playoff trip with the Celtics and now the Clippers exaggerate how extraordinarily tough it is to be the team on the last day doing all the smiling. A title defines excellence, perseverance, toughness and luck. It’s the 2010 paradox for Doc Rivers, year in, year out. He was so close but then it slipped away. To make matters worse, the Celtics had a 3-2 series lead and lost the next two games which sounds so familiar, it could be the Doc Rivers elegy.
“I just remember how hard he was every night. I mean he was just tough, physically. I thought both of those series, the mental part of Kobe is what stood out. We knew the talent. But it don’t think you really know a player until you coach him in the playoffs and it told me a lot.”
Rivers was a tough, gritty, hard-nose player with average talent. He admires the mental grip Bryant lorded over his teammates and the game itself. He himself was in that mold. But the Kobe goodbye? The way Rivers interprets it, thank God you’re gone.
Even so, Rivers can’t rewrite history. His team blew the NBA Finals in 2010. Blame Kobe. Blame Doc. Blame Kendrick Perkins getting injured. Blame Metta. At the end of the day, Kobe has a title Doc desperately craved and worked for and thought he had in the bag. The pain is so gruesome and bone deep that Doc had to pretend the celebratory banner didn’t exist so he wouldn’t be reminded of his greatest basketball failure whenever he is in Staples. Yeah, he’s damn glad Kobe will be gone in a week.
photo via llananba