It is not unusual for a Boston Celtic to walk off the court and be met on the sideline by Doc Rivers, whiteboard in hand and plenty of advice to instill.
As the Celtics look to overcome an 0-2 deficit to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, Rivers’ coaching is most visible during games and timeouts, but there are critical one-on-one conversations that go on as players head to the bench following substitutions. From positive reinforcement to expressions of frustration, Rivers lets his players know what is working and what isn’t so they can either continue with their approach or make in-game adjustments.
For the young guards on the team, these short talks are valuable as they navigate the postseason without Rajon Rondo and look to learn everything they can from their coach, a former NBA guard himself, to help throughout the game.
“It’s motivational stuff or execution,” said 22-year-old Avery Bradley. “Being a point guard on the floor, he usually gives me tips on how to do things better, just like he gives everybody else. It could be (positive or negative), but you always have to think of it as a positive.”
When Rivers speaks, the Celtics listen. Not just because he won a championship in 2008 and has made deep playoff runs since then as a head coach. He has been in their shoes in the past.
Rivers played 13 seasons in the NBA during the 1980s and '90s. Selected with the 31st pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, he spent his first eight seasons with the Atlanta Hawks before suiting up for the Los Angeles Clippers, Knicks, and San Antonio Spurs. Rivers earned an All-Star selection in 1988 and ranked in the top 10 in both assists and steals per game in three seasons.
“He’s giving you different options on the court, making sure you see all the options on defense and offense,” said 24-year-old Jordan Crawford, who was traded from the Washington Wizards in February. “He sees things, too, because he used to be a player so he can see what things work and don’t work.”
There are times when Rivers subs for a player and greets him on the bench with an encouraging pat on the back. Then there are instances where the displeasure on his face can be seen around the arena. Either way, the Celtics know it is their job to absorb the feedback, not up to Rivers to deliver it wrapped in a smile.
Bradley joined the Celtics three seasons ago as a shy rookie who was too nervous to speak up on the practice court, let alone the TD Garden parquet. He learned to take Rivers’ in-game talks as constructive criticism, realizing feedback of any sort was much more positive than the silent treatment.
“If he’s not saying anything to you, that means something,” said Bradley. “You've always know Doc wants you to be better. He’s always thinking about the team first and how we can be better. If that takes him yelling at you, that’s what he’ll do . . . He’s very helpful, I’m pretty sure everyone else would say that.”
Terrence Williams, who signed with the Celtics in February, would. While the 25-year-old has only played three minutes this postseason, he tried to retain as much as possible from Rivers during the regular season should he be called upon during the playoffs.
“He just wants you to play your game,” said Williams. “Doc rarely yells, and if he does yell it’s something positive . . . You never block it out, no matter if he says it aggressively or if he talks to you calmly, because we all know at the end of the day, he wants what’s best. I’ve noticed that since I’ve been there.”
Williams continued, “I’ve been in situations where coaches, you’ll come out the game and you don’t know why you came out the game. If you don’t play, you don’t know why you don’t play. So it’s good with him because he’s going to let you know why he took you out or what he thought you could have done better or what he thinks you could work on in practice. Communication is always there.”
The Celtics will return to the TD Garden on Friday looking to cut the Knicks series lead to 2-1. During the game, the guards will also look to their coach with for feedback -- positive or negative –-- in a matchup where every possession counts.
“It’s your job to take it as he’s trying to help the team and not as criticism,” said Crawford. “If you do that, you’re going to be a better team.”