Forty-eight hours after sending the defending champion Spurs home for the playoffs, the Clippers pulled off an even more astonishing victory when they knocked off the Rockets in Houston without Chris Paul. No one gave the Clips a chance of winning Game 1 without CP3, but the game had a familiar feel to veteran observers of Doc Rivers' teams.
During his run in Los Angeles, it's been difficult to separate Coach Rivers from GM Doc. The skills he brought to the sidelines have been overshadowed by shortsighted personnel moves that have undercut the team's on-court progress.
Rivers not only came up with an ingenious gameplan on short notice, he also played to the crowd, urging them to boo once they had fallen into a stunned silence. It was as if he was saying, I don't know how we're doing it either, but isn't this great?
One of his underrated traits as a coach is his ability to take the heat off his own team. He does that by softening expectations and airing out whatever complaints, grievances or excuses they may have about injuries, the schedule or whatever else is on their mind so they don't have to bother. Rivers is a master at establishing media themes for his teams that more often than not have the effect of making them look like underdog world-beaters.
What he says publicly and what he relays privately to his team are two very different things. In games when he's shorthanded, Rivers is like a junkball pitcher, relying on guile and guts rather than a blazing fastball. Whether by necessity or design, he's not afraid to take chances on players who haven't always delivered and he's certainly not afraid to drastically alter his gameplan. Through it all he maintains and projects a level of confidence that envelopes his team and inspires belief.
He started his son Austin in place of Paul, over the loud objections of most neutral parties, and Austin responded with 17 points on 12 shots. Rather than have Austin "replace" Paul, Doc turned the offense over to Blake Griffin who was phenomenal with 26 points, 14 rebounds and a staggering 13 assists.
Rivers has long been enthralled with Griffin's passing ability, but with Paul on the court there simply hasn't been as much of a need to make it a focal part of their attack. Using Griffin as a point forward was a natural use of his abilities, but Blake may have taken to the task a little too earnestly at times.
Doc noted after the game that he had to remind Griffin to be a scorer and not just a facilitator. His message: Never forget who you are, because that's why we're here. Somewhere, Paul Pierce was nodding. Time after time with the Celtics, Rivers turned to Pierce as his default point guard when necessary and the instructions were always the same: We need you to do this, and be yourself.
Much as we saw Pierce mature into an all-around postseason threat under Rivers, Griffin is silencing the playoff doubts that hovered around the early stages of his career. Even with Paul's heroics, the Clippers wouldn't have gotten past the Spurs without Griffin and they wouldn't have been in the Houston game if he wasn't at his best.
Yet they pulled away early in the fourth quarter while the All-Star forward caught a few minutes of rest. Rivers said after the game that they were just buying time, which may have been his mantra during his years with the Celtics. None of this is new.
Six years before the Clips and Spurs gave us The Best First Round Series Ever, Doc's Celtics held that honor after an exhausting seven-game epic against Chicago that featured seven overtime sessions. Like this year's Clips, the C's had little depth and were dealing with an injury to their best player. Without Kevin Garnett, Rivers was down to a small handful of players he trusted. So he improvised, running Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine in a makeshift big-man rotation.
The Celtics lost their next series to Orlando in seven games that was punctuated by a blowout loss on their home floor when they had nothing left for the finale. Yet in Game 6 back in Orlando, the C's led late into the fourth quarter and had a chance to close things out. Simply getting to that point with what they had left was an accomplishment. It was the first instance, but by no means the last, of Doc's game-to-game resourcefulness in the postseason.
The 2010 run to the Finals came out of nowhere, spurred in part by huge contributions from reserves like Tony Allen and Nate Robinson. Lest anyone forget, this was the postseason that turned Trick-or-Treat Tony into a defensive savant. Then there was NateRob, who was buried and out of the rotation before he emerged as a savior in the conference finals.
In 2012, Doc juggled lineups around injuries to Ray Allen and then Avery Bradley, while carefully managing Garnett's minutes and making unlikely heroes out of Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma. With KG playing about 30 minutes a night, "buying time" became a mandate, not a luxury.
The Clippers bought themselves time with their Game 1 performance. If Paul can't go in Game 2 and the Rockets get their act together, the worst outcome for the Clippers is heading back to Los Angeles with a split and the knowledge that three of the next five games will be on their home floor. That's fine with Rivers, who has no fear of stretching out series for as long as it takes. Nine times he's taken his teams into a seventh game, and he's won six of them.
The Clippers may lack depth. They may not have Chris Paul at full strength. But no Doc Rivers team should ever be taken lightly in the postseason. That's simply playing into his hands.
SB Nation presents: Chris Paul's best plays against the Spurs