I spent my drive home from Boston thinking about something Kevin Garnett said:
“What makes a team tough? I think what makes a team tough is the leaders,” he said. “I think it starts with the coach first and makes it to the players. How much heart your players have, and I’m not just talking about the first five or the first eight. I’m talking A-Z. To me toughness is both physical and mental. But any tough team starts with their coach.”
“Any tough team starts with their coach.” That got me pondering: Should Doc Rivers get more respect for his team’s tenacity?
Since the inception of the Big Three era, credit for Boston’s defensive success and gritty play has gone to anyone but Rivers. Tom Thibodeau received his fair share of the glory, and deservedly so. The defensive specialist continues to amaze on the blue-collar side of the floor, and his Chicago Bulls now lead the NBA in defensive efficiency. If Thibs wasn’t getting the credit, Garnett was. The floor leader deserves all the praise that comes his way, as he communicates like no other NBA player and might be the greatest pick-and-roll defender ever to grace the hardwood.
But what about Rivers? Why doesn’t he hear more praise for his team’s toughness, for their grit, for their Celtic Pride? After all, this is the man who brought the term “Ubuntu” to the United States, who preaches that his team stay together through any and all adversity.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Rivers has been acknowledged as a top-tier coach for a few years. His name is mentioned among the NBA’s elite, up there with Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan. But when we discuss Rivers’ talents, we normally talk about the way he manages players. On certain days, we’ll laud Rivers’ ability to call plays in a timeout. Almost never do we give Rivers credit for leading the Celtics’ hard-nosed style.
That’s mostly because there are so many reasons the Celtics play hard. Kevin Garnett’s a caged pitbull who oozes passion with every breath he takes, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen both realize the end is near, and Rajon Rondo, well, he’s one competitive bastard. Shaq wants to enjoy his career while it lasts, Kendrick Perkins’ scowl typifies his entire being, and the rest of the players just fall into line because of the veteran leadership.
But does Doc have more to do with the C’s edge than we believe? KG seems to think so, at least. And when I think of the best-coached teams, they are almost always molded in their head coach’s persona.
Bob Hurley, St. Anthony High school head coach and the main subject of Adrian Wojnarowski’s Miracle of St. Anthony, is widely regarded as one of the top two high school basketball coaches ever to blow a whistle. (He plays rock-paper-scissors shoot for the top spot with Dematha’s retired coach, Morgan Wooten.) Hurley’s St. Anthony squad plays in my hometown once a year, and those games have become one of my favorite days of each year. I know for a fact Hurley’s teams will play harder than their opponents. I know for a fact they’ll make a minimal amount of mistakes. I know his kids will play suffocating, in-your-chest defense, and I know if they don’t they’ll find themselves sitting on the bench next to a fuming Coach Hurley.
This past weekend, I saw Hurley’s team play against DeMatha, the 13th-ranked team in the country. DeMatha scored two points in the first quarter (clearly, Wooten’s not walking through that door), and St. Anthony’s held DeMatha to 25 points total. The St. Anthony Friars didn’t just beat DeMatha, they seized DeMatha’s will to live. The Friars posted a clinic on how to play team basketball — how to work until you can’t work anymore, and then once you can’t work anymore somehow find it inside of you to keep working. St. Anthony manhandled Dematha by fifty points, 75-25, and after the game I described St. Anthony’s performance with one sentence: “That’s a Hurley team.”
St. Anthony takes on their coach’s personality, every year. The same goes on at Michigan St., where Tom Izzo’s teams always have the biggest balls around. And in San Antonio, where Popovich’s boys always execute with exact precision. And in L.A., where Jackson’s teams always keep their cool no matter what the circumstance.
In Boston, Doc Rivers rarely receives credit for his team’s tough mentality. He’s still seen as more of a manager than a leader of men.
Maybe it’s time to start giving Rivers his due. As Garnett explained, any tough team starts with its coach.