Doc vs. Phil: No mismatch after all
Going into the NBA Finals, the Lakers were assumed to have a decided edge in coaching. After all, we're talking about nine-time NBA champion Phil Jackson against relative neophyte Doc Rivers, who had never coached a team out of the first round in four previous trips to the playoffs.
Rivers, however, has shown that he certainly isn't overmatched. He has more than held his own and forced Jackson to react to his moves more than the other way around. So far, the Celtics have been smarter and more focused than the Lakers, in part because of Rivers' presence.
Rivers doesn't cry, complain, lament or blame. He prepares, strategizes, instills belief and leads. When he calls on a player, that player performs -- or he calls on someone else. But that first player is still ready to play the next time he is asked.
The man always seems to be in control, saying the right things at the right times. Rivers has distinguished himself with his cool under pressure, use of his entire roster and trust in his players.
Two incidents above many, many others provide a glimpse into Rivers' skill as a coach. The first happened in Game 1 when star Paul Pierce had to be helped from the court with a knee injury. He returned minutes later to inspire the Celtics to victory. But at the time of the injury, when the air was sucked out of the arena -- and the Celtics themselves -- in one instant, it was Rivers who never flinched, telling his players during a timeout that they had faced adversity before and that they were still good enough to win, no matter what obstacles were ahead of them.
That's probably what every coach would say, but Rivers said it as fact. The players could look into his eyes and know he believed it, and so they believed it. We all know now that Pierce returned and has been brilliant ever since, but Rivers showed his mettle when tested.
The other instance came in Game 4 when his team was steamrolled for two-and-a-half quarters, trailing by as many as 24 and by 20 midway through the third period. Rivers repeatedly told his team to keep playing and he kept coaching, going to a small lineup and taking advantage of matchups. His calm demeanor prevented the Celtics from panicking, and they took control of the series with a remarkable 97-91 victory.
Using the small lineup in Game 4, which sparked the Celtics' rally, may have been a no-brainer, but it was also the right combination of players; Rivers still had defenders in the game, knowing all too well that when you are trying to make a comeback, stops are just as important as baskets.
Coaching is also knowing what you can receive from specific players and how to get it from them.
Jackson, for some reason, lets his team go long stretches without Kobe Bryant touching the ball. Rivers, meanwhile, will run the same play to death, like the Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett pick-and-roll Boston initially tried on the critical possession in the final seconds of Game 4. But Allen, recognizing the matchup, waved off the screen and took Sasha Vujacic one-on-one. The Celtics adjusted to the change, the Lakers didn't. Ball game. It certainly wasn't Jackson's fault that Vujacic couldn't guard Allen or that no Laker reacted to help stop a wide-open layup. But putting players in positions where they don't make mistakes is part of the deal.
It is just as much a frame of mind as it is a specific move that has aided Rivers this series. He has gotten his players to play hard and physical, while the Lakers have shown far too many lulls in that department. In Jackson's defense, no one knows his team better than the coach, and maybe he is getting all he can from his players. Rivers is just getting more from his.
Jackson is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, and Rivers may indeed be a one-year wonder. But for now, at least, Rivers appears to be the coach who is in more control of his team, the game and this series.
David DuPree covered the NBA for nine seasons for the Washington Post and 23 seasons for USA Today. His column appears weekly at SI.com.