Doc Rivers has been coaching in the NBA for 21 years. It is his 34th year of NBA service. ( In a 13-year career, he played in 81 playoff games). You don’t have to be a Harvard data scientist to see that Rivers has seen it all. He has coached in 178 playoff games, winning 51% of them. Although he has had his share of disappointing finishes, his teams have never been swept in a series. But on the other hand, he has only swept one opponent (Knicks, 2011). And think about this. Rivers owns a cornucopia of misery because teams he has coached have had a commanding lead and then blew it. They choked. Lost. Folded.
As coach of Orlando Magic in 2003, Glenn “Doc” Rivers was up 3-1 on the Detroit Pistons and lost the series. He was up 3-2 against the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals and lost the series in 7 games, a bitter Celtics loss. He was up 3-1 against the Houston Rockets in 2015 and lost in game 7, one more Clippers moment of disaster that ushered in the death of Lob City. Rivers was up 2-1 against the Utah Jazz in 2017 and lost.
And now the Denver Nuggets have the Clippers on the brink of underachievement. After leading 3-1, the Clippers are one block, or one Jamal Murray jump shot, or one Jokic three-pointer away from being bounced. Again. If it feels familiar, well that is because it is.
Five years ago the same exact situation. The Clippers were up 3-1 and went into Houston. The Rockets won a game in which the Clips went through the motions. In Game 6, in Los Angeles, the Clippers built a double-digit third-quarter lead. With James Harden on the bench, the Rockets three-point bombed their way back in and Harden returned and did what Harden always does. Game 7 on tap.
The reason for this particular iteration of the gagging Clips is plentiful. Lou Williams is god awful. The strip club took his superpower and he can’t make shots anymore. Kawhi Leonard is not leading and to the surprise of the mortal universe, he’s not the best player on the floor. The Clippers still don’t have a trustworthy point guard. And they don’t give effort, as if talent wins anything without competing. Playoff P rarely rises to the winning occasion.
The Doc Rivers rule is in effect one more time: you can win an NBA title as a coach and still have your heart repeatedly broken. But is that heartbreak his fault? It’s his greatest riddle.
The Clippers made history in 2017. The first time in league history that a team has led in a series and then lost the series five years in a row. That particular nugget of Clippers purgatory is here again. They have lost when they were supposed to resoundingly win. Clippers were bragging about the Lakers matchup as if the Nuggets were supposed to go on vacation because the basketball world wants to see Lakers v Clippers.
Is it Rivers the coach? And if he is not to blame then why do his teams lose when they have the lead? Why can’t they finish?
In 2016, Doc talked about the challenge of the job during an informative and insightful coaches roundtable on the NBAtv show Open Court. He correctly pointed out that the team and the franchise have two separate goals. The team wants to win. The franchise wants to develop talent for the future. But you can’t win and develop talent at the same time.
In that vein, Doc won. He has gritty veterans on his team but he is getting beat by Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray. It has always been the Doc Rivers dilemma. He needs youth. He needs young talent but he traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to get Paul George.
Doc wants to win a second title badly. It defines a career. Not to mention winning is contagious. Once you taste it, you crave it; it is a drug. And so Doc bypasses on young talent and goes with veterans but the veterans that are supposed to carry him are having brain freezes in the second half. Ummm….less is not more.
Before this season even started, the Clippers arrogantly boasted they were not like the Lakers because they had depth. They could go 12 deep. And yet, in the bubble, it is the Lakers who are proving that leadership, elite talent, and defense wins games.
The Clippers opponents in the bubble have been tougher than the Lakers but the Lakers earned their weaker opponents by way of playing hard during the regular season and maintaining the number one seed.
This Doc Rivers year was supposed to be different. But just like rain will fall, the Clippers will have melodrama. You can count on an injury or the curse. It is always…something. And then it will be as it usually is, the Clippers and Doc Rivers having to explain what happened with that same aggrieved look on their faces.