Ten years ago, Doc Rivers faced his greatest professional sorrow when he lost a Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals. It was a Finals series Rivers was in control of which made the sting of the loss even more acute. The Boston Celtics led the Lakers 3-2. Doc Rivers just needed one win and that coveted second NBA title was his. But it felt as if the Basketball Gods were on the Lakers side.
In Game 6 which was played in the Staples Center, Kendrick Perkins hurt his knee and was ruled out for the rest of the series. The Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 6 by 22 points; the Celtics only scored 67 points in 4 quarters because of 33% shooting. In Game 7 Kendrick Perkins wanted to give it a go but Rivers said no. He cared more about Perkins career than one game- but Rivers really, really cared about that one game.
There is something about the number 7 that haunts Glenn “Doc” Rivers. When he coached the Orlando Magic, he lost a Game 7 to Detroit when he had been leading the series 3-1. He lost a Game 7 to the Houston Rockets when he was up 3-1 in the series and five years later, he lost another Game 7 to the Denver Nuggets. But it was that NBA Finals game 7 that created Doc’s greatest despair.
The Celtics were leading by 13 at the eight-minute mark of the 3rd quarter but were outscored the rest of the quarter 17-8. The Celtics led the fourth quarter at the six-minute mark and then were outscored 22-16. The dagger was a Metta World Peace 3 that gave the Lakers a 6 point lead with a minute left. As the Lakers Sasha Vujacic drained two free throws with 11 seconds left to give the Lakers a 4 point lead the blood began draining from Doc Rivers’s face. Afterward, he said all the right things, was appropriately humble and wise, gave credit where credit was due, didn’t use the Perkins injury as an excuse, but he was broken by this loss.
The loss illuminated how time was running out. The Celtics run was nearing the end and Doc knew it. He had a good team the next season but not a great team because now LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were in Miami. Rivers lost in the second round of the playoffs. Then he lost the following year in the Conference Finals. Three years after that Finals loss, Doc lost in the first round after a very average season, 41-40. This was the bottom.
Asking for a release from his contract, Doc Rivers cherry-picked his next destination. The Clippers had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick. What could go wrong?
His seventh year in Los Angeles, the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George posed a similar query: what could go wrong?
Before the season began, in the summer of 2019, the Clippers played chess while the Lakers played checkers. The Clippers intentionally signed Kawhi at the midnight hour so all the Lakers targets were taken by the time Kawhi rejected them. Doc talked Paul George out of OKC; George was another Laker hopeful who had defected to the enemy
The Clippers played the Lakers on opening night and ruined them in the second half with their depth. Doc had a deeper team. He had shooters. And he had stars.
But what hadn’t changed about Rivers over all these years, despite the self-crowning arrogance of his players, is what happens to Doc in the playoffs. He doesn’t make adjustments. He relies too much on his superstars to think their way out of trouble. His teams turn it off and on and then it’s too late. They have already activated the opponent.
Every NBA analyst picked the Clippers to get to the Finals. While Anthony Davis and LeBron James were summarily feted as top-5, the Lakers supporting cast was greeted with scorn and derision. Frank Vogel is never going to get Doc Rivers level of respect.
So when the Lakers made it to the Finals and the Clippers didn’t, when the Lakers were up 3-1 on a team and won, beating the same team the Clippers were up 3-1 on and lost, when the Clippers defeat in the second round was like all the other second-round defeats in Clipper history, embarrassing, self-fulfilling, and hard to swallow and stomach, someone had to take the fall.
The Lakers kept up their bargain, the Clippers didn’t. The Lakers beat Doc again.
If Doc Rivers has a major flaw it is that in the playoffs his loyalty is blinding. While Erik Spoelstra goes to multiple versions of zone, and Frank Vogel benches his starting center and back up center for an entire playoff series, Doc stays pat. He doesn’t change things up. After Jamal Murray burned the Lakers all over the floor with his off-balance jumpers and reverse layups and cold-blooded threes, Frank Vogel doubled him to get the ball out of his hands. Doc didn’t. Over the course of his coaching career there a lot of Doc didn’t’s.
Doc will recover from this latest catastrophe because he’s an elite coach. His tenure in Los Angeles was both success and failure. He changed the Clippers culture but he couldn’t win the way Los Angeles demands. And he couldn’t beat the Lakers. Even when the Lakers won 27 games, 21 games, 17 games, 26 games in Doc’s first four seasons, he couldn’t take advantage of the Lakers futility, losing in the second round twice and the first round twice. Even when he had two All-Stars and the Lakers had none, he couldn’t achieve in the postseason. He couldn’t make the town his.
And now here we are. The 2019-20 season nearly over. It was an epic Doc Rivers failure, a tremendous loss. The numbers say it all. Doc Rivers winning percentage with the Clippers is a career-best .631. But in the playoffs, Doc Rivers couldn’t crack .500. In 59 playoff games, Doc won 27 and lost 32.
That’s unacceptable. And as offenses go, it is fireable.