Lucky 13? Doc Wins Only If He Wins

When Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics went down with a knee injury after colliding with Lakers center Andrew Bynum in the 2010 Finals, the worst fears were realized. Perkins tore his ACL and would be out the rest of the game and series (if it went to a Game 7).

It went to a Game 7.

Later, a conversation between Kendrick Perkins and his head coach Doc Rivers said everything you need to know about Rivers and how he feels about his players. Kendrick’s knee felt okay. He could run and even jump. His pain was minimal and he pleaded his case with Rivers. Let me wear a sleeve and I can go, even in limited minutes. Without pause, Doc went Ariana Grande. Thank you. Next. You will not be playing. I want to win Game 7 against the Lakers but I care about your career. I care about you. So. No. You are not playing.

It was a costly Kendrick Perkins absence. The Celtics led by 14 points in the 4th quarter and lost. To add insult to injury, Kobe Bryant was a pathetic 6-24 on a hobbled knee himself but he had more rebounds than any other Celtic, rebounds that wouldn’t have been there if Perkins had played. Bryant cemented his legacy with a win and 5 titles. The Celtic Big Three only had one ring, and then, blink. It was over. The Big Three dissolved.

What remains in the aftermath of that 2010 championship game is that Doc Rivers lost an NBA Finals in which he had a 3-2 lead. Because Rivers had supreme talent with three Hall of Famers, that loss still clings to him and is part of the Rivers bio. He gives up leads. Not only did he lead 3-2 against the Lakers in Game 6 and lost the series, early in his career coaching for the Magic and playing the Pistons of Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace fame, he was also up 3-2 and lost the series. Several years ago, he was up 3-2 against the Houston Rockets, blew a huge lead, the Rockets tied up the series, and the Clippers lost. And who can forget his 2020 bubble collapse?

Doc has had trouble in his career finishing playoff games.

It’s on his coaching watch that he was never able to get the Lob City bunch to a conference final. Lob City was a tough locker room but Jordan’s Bulls was a tough locker room too. They found a way to prevail. Doc, in perpetual battles with a headstrong Chris Paul, just couldn’t find a way. Everyone had to fall on their sword.

If basketball is algebra, then the insertion of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George into a 48 win Clippers team should have translated into 68 wins. 2x+y= 68. But basketball isn’t algebra. It’s a combination of integral calculus, analytical chemistry, and luck. Inserting dominant players into a winning system doesn’t always produce the expected results. In the middle of all of it is Doc.

It didn’t go well because of that horrific and ghastly Game 7 in the bubble, and because Paul George choked late, and because Kawhi Leonard disappeared and because the Clippers didn’t have a playoff-caliber point guard, and because…because…because…

Doc didn’t have long to lick his wounds from his Clippers bubble disaster. He joined the Sixers and they have been the best team in the conference all season. The Sixers have the number one seed but no one is picking the Sixers to get to the Finals. Charles Barkley is steadily beating the Bucks drum, believing in Giannis. Stephen A. Smith is all in on the Nets. Philly is an afterthought despite finishing in the top-10 in 3-point percentage, field goal percentage, free throw attempts, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal defense, 3-point defense. Joel Embiid has an offensive rating of 121 and a PER of 30.3. Tobias Harris has an offensive rating of 118 and a PER of 20.0.

The Sixers have an easy first-round opponent in Washington who they have beaten every game this season for a 5-0 record. Their second-round opponent is equally a walk in the park. The Sixers haven’t lost to the Knicks, and they beat the Hawks two out of three times. It looks like a Sixers showdown with the Nets but no one believes the Sixers can prevail and return to the NBA Finals after a 20-year drought.

Reason #1: Kevin Durant.  The best offensive player in the NBA, and the most efficient, the most difficult to stop, and the hardest to guard missed all the games against the Sixers which is a huge disadvantage in preparing for Brooklyn. Doc doesn’t really know how his team matches up. Who guards KD? Do they double, and when? Do they bully and when?

Durant, if he makes it to the ECF, will be coming off a bruising series with Giannis while the Sixers have an easier road with Atlanta or New York. But it’s still Kevin Durant. Good luck.

Reason #2: Ben Simmons.  It makes people lose their minds that Ben Simmons doesn’t have a jumper. 6-11 Simmons has a Karl Malone-lite body and looks like a force until he passes up an open mid-range or three, settling for a pass or a dribble to the rim. Simmons made 339 shots this season but only 38, or 11.5% of his total makes were jumpers. The Sixers can’t win without Simmons being a versatile player. Once Embiid is doubled, Simmons is out the play because he is an unwilling shooter. The Sixers can’t get to the Finals with a passive and shot-leery Simmons. It puts too much pressure on Tobias Harris to be the scorer that Simmons can’t be. Simmons is a great rebounder for Doc and a great point guard but he’s going to be forced to take a jumper in a key situation. Can he make one?

Reason #3: The Past is Prologue. Since Doc Rivers won a title in 2008, he has lost 6 game 7s. While the Lakers loss was traumatic, so was losing to the Rockets after leading 3-1, and losing to the Nuggets after leading 3-1. Doc Rivers has to prove he can overcome a perceived coaching shortcoming about his killer instinct, that in close games he comes up short, and that he refuses to make adjustments when stressed; he doesn’t think outside the box, he doesn’t take calculated gambles. He rides and dies with his guys even if analytics proves his loyalty misplaced.

Will he be redeemed if the Sixers win the whole thing? Yes. After 13 years, Rivers will finally have his second title. He can bury the criticisms about his game-7 failures, and live out a peculiar irony, being successful after the best guard he ever coached failed in the playoffs because of injury. Doc will finally have wrestled the coaching demons into submission while proving so many wrong. 

But Kevin Durant is in Doc’s way. It is the agony and ecstasy that Doc is up against. He has to slay the beast (Durant) before he can have revenge and slay the beast (Lakers).