Celtics

Blakely: Rivers remains constant for changing Celtics

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Blakely: Rivers remains constant for changing Celtics

BOSTON When Doc Rivers shed tears following the Boston Celtics' season-ending loss to the Miami Heat, his players shared in his pain and suffering.

What he feels, they feel.

For NBA veterans such as Keyon Dooling who has played for a number of coaches throughout his career, the bond that forms so quickly between Rivers and his players is unusual.

But after spending a few months with Rivers on a daily basis, Dooling gets it.

"We love Doc," Dooling said. "He takes care of us. He's got it figured out. These young coaches who feel like they have to be Caesar on steroids, one of these dictators. It's such a waste of time and energy. Doc takes care of us. He respects us as men. He appreciates what we do. He demands a lot out of us, though. It's a healthy respect. He's figured it out. He's a flawless, coach. Straight up. I can't say that of any coach I've had. He's flawless from a coaching standpoint."

Having such reverence for Rivers is among the reasons why the Celtics fared so surprisingly well despite a season filled with heartaches and hardships.

Through all the turbulent times, Rivers never swayed from his belief in this team that they had so much more to give than anyone - outside of himself - believed was possible.

That's why he was willing to go to bat for this crew to stay together when the trading deadline came near, knowing C's president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was as open as he's ever been to making moving members of the Big Four.

"I kept telling him (Ainge), do what you think is best for the team. But if you don't think it's best for the long run, short run I want to stay with this group," Rivers said. "Make no short run moves involving them."

Ainge kept the group intact, to the relief of Rivers.

Throughout the season, players would speak about the positivity that Rivers was constantly filling them with, but at the same time not allowing them to wallow in self-pity when things didn't go their way or get too high or too low.

Rivers was the steady hand behind the wheel, constantly driving this team to be better than they were the day before.

And while Rivers has maintained how special a team this Celtics group was, he has often compared it to the 2003 Orlando Magic team he coached.

That group failed to make the playoffs, but their postseason fate wasn't decided until the last day of the season. And that team on paper at least, had no business being in the playoff race.

The key to that team's unexpected success?

Doc Rivers.

Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace was a member of that Orlando Magic team. He recalls one of Rivers' greatest traits being his ability to get those he coached, to elevate their play without realizing they're being nudged in that direction.

"Doc's a great coach," Wallace told CSNNE.com earlier this year. "He makes you believe sometimes when you don't want to. He has a way of seeing some things in you, in a team, that nobody else does. That's why he's such a great coach."

Said a Western Conference front-office official: "Doc didn't have to do anything this year special to be considered one of the best coaches in the game. But that team, all that they lost, to get all the way to the Conference finals and actually have a shot, a good shot at winning the series? Hands down, the best job he's done in Boston. Maybe the best job he's done ever."

Moments after the loss, Rivers acknowledged he couldn't yet fully appreciate all that the Celtics accomplished this season.

"I'm sure at some point I'll look back and say what a great run," Rivers said. "Right now, I'm just too competitive to see that."

And it is that competitive drive that you see in his players, a drive that allows a 26-year-old rookie center (Greg Stiemsma) from the D-League not only make the roster, but develop into one of the top first-year centers in the NBA this season. It infuses a player like Mickael Pietrus who was tossed aside by Phoenix, with the kind of confidence to be one of the Celtics' better on-the-ball-defenders.

"He (Rivers) took me under his shoulder and treated me like his son," Pietrus said. "That is why I was so grateful to the Boston Celtics this year."

But as much as players trust in Rivers, it is his trust in them that fuels the most storied franchise in the NBA.

Near the end of his post-game monologue on Saturday, Rajon Rondo came on to the podium to join Rivers.

Rondo sat there, attentively, as Rivers answered a couple more questions.

As Rivers' press conference came to a close, he applied a firm father-to-son-like grip on the back of Rondo's neck, and said, "I'm going to give it to this guy (Rondo). Like I said earlier, he's wonderful."

And so Rivers, clearly fighting off his emotions, walked off the stage and into an offseason of change for the Celtics.

But the one steadying force that's guiding it all - Rivers - will be back.

And if you're not sure as to why, here's a clue - He's a Celtic.

Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season. 

But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”

He’s not alone. 

Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history. 

Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason. 

Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out. 

We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night. 

There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.

“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season.  It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”

Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win. 

BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY

Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season. 

YOGI FERRELL

You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.

HOMECOMING

While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”

DEEP DRAFT CLASS

The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

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NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE