Austin Rivers had his best game in a while against his dad's team as the Hornets beat the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday. The intimate relationship between Austin and Doc wasn't exactly tested, but the strains of reality were plain to see.
BOSTON -- For most of his very young life, Austin Rivers has always wanted to be in this exact moment. Playing at the Garden, matched up against one of the all-time greats with his father on the sideline. Late in the third quarter, it happened when he found himself guarding Paul Pierce. The Captain and the coach's son. One-on-one.
How many times had Austin been in that exact situation over the years? Doc Rivers' kid had long been a fixture at the team's practice facility in suburban Waltham and at the Garden. He lived through the ups and downs with the Celtics and relished his interactions with the players who noticed early that young Austin was a player.
Pierce looked at him and said, "This is your welcome to the league moment."
Then he scored on him.
In truth, Austin Rivers has already been welcomed to the NBA and it hasn't been easy. When you're shooting 33 percent with one point in your last five games and your name is being associated with stories that start with the question "is Austin Rivers having the worst rookie season ever?" ... well, it doesn't get much tougher than that. If you want to get really serious about it, young Austin Rivers has seen tougher times in this game and they happened well before he got into the league.
"I saw my father go through a season where they only won 15 games and people saying, ‘Fire Doc' and stuff like that," Austin Rivers said. "You want to talk about a tough time, you think I'm going through a tough time, my father's been through stuff a hundred times worse and look where he is now."
This is the thing with Austin Rivers. He acts like he belongs here even if he goes 0-for-whatever and even if his rookie season has been one hell of a struggle. Part of that is his father and growing up around the NBA, but part of that is an unshakeable belief in himself. Good or bad, right or wrong, that has always sustained him and he knows enough to know he can't lose that.
"To be truthful, confidence for me is a huge part of my game and I think everybody knows that," Austin Rivers said. "My confidence has always been steady. No matter how good or bad I played, I always believed in myself. That's what I've got to improve on now even now. There have been games where I've been like, ‘Man, what am I doing?' You can't do that. You got to keep going at it. I know if I do that when I break through it's going to feel so much better."
It wasn't exactly a breakthrough, but Austin Rivers scored eight points in 22 minutes and helped the Hornets get a 90-78 win over his father's team. It was their sixth win in their last seven games and for one night at least Austin was in familiar territory surrounded by loved ones and familiar faces throughout the arena.
"At the end of the day, I knew it was a different game and I didn't try to pretend it wasn't," Austin Rivers said. "I think that helped me."
His father was, well, a father. Doc took care of all the tickets, handled the family part of it and generally tried to give his son a comfort zone where he could go out and just play. Their interaction on the court was limited, which if you know Doc you know is out of character. He's an emotional man and he never tries to hide that, especially with his kids. They hugged before the game and Doc told him he loved him and go compete. That was it, really.
"It was funny, the one time he did something, I was about to say something and I didn't say it -- I caught myself -- I forgot he was on the other team," Doc said. "Other than that, it's just a strange dynamic. I didn't enjoy it, honestly. I know it's neat for everyone else, but as a father, I don't know if I enjoyed that."
"Part of him probably's happy because I played better and we won," Austin said and then caught himself and laughed. "Well, not that we won, just that I played better probably. It's all good."
Someone asked him if he was going to talk trash to his old man.
"Oh yeah," Austin said. "That's what I'm about to go do right now. I'm going to get changed and go right to, not their locker room, but his office. And be like, ‘What's up?'"
There's no template for this sort of thing obviously. It's not the first time fathers and sons have competed against each other in this league. Yet every family is different and in an interesting twist, Austin Rivers is coached by one of his father's best friends in Monty Williams, who played for Doc in Orlando way back when.
"You raise your kids and you want them to do well," Doc said. "You want them to make the pros, which was Austin's goal but you don't plan on the other stuff. You've got to coach against him. I never thought about it until the moment he was drafted who was going to coach him. I never gave that any thought. It's good to have Monty around him."
The two coaches have talked almost every day for years, long before Doc's son was a player on his team. But this is different and both tread lightly.
"We rarely talk about anything but family and we'll get to basketball later," Williams said. "This year has been a bit different. It's a gray area. We try not to cross it. I played for Doc and now his son plays for me, so it's just weird, but at the same time it's a huge responsibility. To be honest, I wouldn't want Austin to play for anybody else but me because it is different. There's no other way to put it. It's a different deal. I've known him since he was three years old. So to be in my care right now is probably a good thing for him because I'm probably more willing to put up with his confidence, which is pretty high. It's also the thing that makes him good."
You might think a cocky rookie who hasn't played up to expectations would rub his teammates the wrong way, but you'd be wrong. Even with his erratic play, he's earned some amount of credibility with his teammates because of his work ethic.
"See, people put pressure on him that he's got to be our franchise player," Greivis Vasquez said. "He doesn't have to be a franchise player. He just has to better himself to be a big time player, which he will. I have no doubt. It just takes time. You don't just come to this league and dominate the league. No, the good thing about Austin is he works. The team, the coaches the whole organization, they like him. I just think he has to relax and just be himself.
"He don't have to do all that," Vasquez continued. "Let Eric Gordon. Let (Anthony Davis). Let (Ryan) Anderson. Those guys are getting paid to do that and then you figure into your role. That's what happened to me. I went to Memphis, I was the 12th man. Sometimes I wasn't even playing. You just work. He was a higher pick so people expect he's going to dominate the game. It's not like that. But I'll tell you this: He's going to be a player."
When it was over, the Rivers' family gathered outside the locker room. It was an intimate, wonderful scene, almost too voyeuristic to observe even for someone who lives to watch unguarded moments with the people they cover. That is, until you noticed the cameras and the boom mic hovering over the scene.
When you live in the public eye the way the Rivers' do, you probably get used to the attention of strangers. You get used to the scrutiny and the criticism. You want to tell them they're wrong. My dad can coach. My son can play. But you accept it as part of the bargain for living the life. What you have when all that's gone and there's no one else around is family.
"We're going to Strega," Doc announced and with that, they were off to one of their familiar post-game haunts to relive the whole night in peace.