In Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics went down with a knee injury after colliding with Lakers center Andrew Bynum. The worst fear was realized when 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.
A interesting side note that hadn’t been revealed until Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals was a conversation between Kendrick Perkins and his head coach Doc Rivers after the ACL tear. 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 a NBA Finals in which he had a 3-2 lead. Because Rivers had supreme talent with two 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, 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 ala the Lakers Finals Game 7. The Rockets tied up the series and Rivers lost. Doc has had trouble in his career finishing playoff games.
Reports indicate that Kawhi Leonard wanted to play for Doc Rivers which makes a whole lot of sense. Comparing Rivers to Frank Vogel of the Lakers, and to a lesser degree Jason Kidd, is no comparison. Doc is a NBA lifer, from point guard to assistant coach, to championship coach. But his teams fail in the postseason.
He was never able to get the Lob City bunch to a conference final. That Houston Rockets debacle pretty much ended their reign. They were never able to overcome their paralysis. Lob City was a tough locker room but Jordan’s Bulls was a tough locker room too. They found a way to prevail. But Doc, in perpetual battles with a headstrong Chris Paul, just couldn’t find a way. Everyone had to fall on their sword.
Last season, was one of the best coaching performances of Doc Rivers career. He traded his leading scorer and a team without an All-Star won 48 games.
If basketball is algebra, then the insertion of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George into a 48 win Clippers team translates 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.
If it goes well, Kawhi Leonard will be a LeBron James-esqe hero, delivering the Clippers their first title. If it fails, then Doc gets the blame. It will be the Doc Rivers bio all over again where he cannot win in the postseason.
Kawhi has no pressure. He lost to LeBron. He beat LeBron. He lost to Steph Curry. He beat Steph Curry. Paul George has no pressure. He is a gifted complimentary player, a number two. The pressure is on Doc Rivers to integrate the elite into his system of hard nose workers.
The Clippers are anticipated to have the best defense in the West. But here’s the thing. They had to be a great defensive team last year because they didn’t have offensive talent. Now that they do, will the desire to defend wane? They don’t have to be great defensively, night in and night out, to win. They have Kawhi. With a savior, the psychological strategy shifts three degrees. They can afford to not go hard every single play. Kawhi will bail them out.
Or, he’ll be another Doc River superstar, sad faced when all is said and done. The paper champions in the summer of 2019 will be the almost champions in 2020.