PLAYA VISTA: Austin Rivers knows how it’s going to sound.
He remembers the conversation about comparing players across generations. A shy, meeker person than him would’ve pointed out that the speed of the game, the athleticism changes, the advancements in skill would give players from the modern NBA advantages.
But Austin Rivers isn’t shy. And, he’s not meek. Not about basketball.
That day in that conversation, Rivers said he’d score 100 points on Bob Cousy.
Reminded of that boast Thursday at the Clippers’ practice facility, you could almost see the 23-year-old guard process the ramifications of the comment being published.
Bob Cousy is in the Hall of Fame. He played in 13 All-Star Games. He won six NBA titles. And Rivers, is well, Austin Rivers.
He knows this. He knows what people are going to think or what some people are going to say. And, in a flash, he makes a decision. Screw it.
He cocks his head to the side, lowers his voice a notch and, amazingly, doubles down.
“I would give him 100.”
That line of thinking is why Austin Rivers isn’t surprised by any of this – that he’s playing key minutes for a very good team, that he’s quietly putting together a resume with some strong playoff performances, that he went blow-for-blow with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant at the end of March.
The confidence, and it can be extreme, really only happens on the floor.
“Only on the court,” Rivers said. “And I don’t understand why people have a problem with that. Why would I not play that way?”
And, seemingly, it’s always there.
It’s why, when fans at Staples Center chanted his name after a 15-point third quarter in last season’s playoffs, he didn’t act surprised. It’s why, when the ball found his hands in the fourth quarter of Game 2 Wednesday night, he launched a back-breaking 3-pointer, a play Portland coach Terry Stotts signaled out as particularly important.
He’s been fine in these big moments because, well, he’s always felt like any time he stepped on the court, it was a big moment.
His dad played in the NBA – Doc Rivers, his current coach. But before that novelty, he was just a son of a pro basketball player and someone people expected to be good at the family business.
“Because of who my father was, I always had a chip on my shoulder. I always felt like I had to be that way,” he said. “It kind of morphed into something where I became the player I wanted to be. That was already a part of me because that’s how I was when I was little.
“ … I had confidence in the sixth, seventh grade. I thought I could do anything to anybody. And, I wasn’t even that good. I was just a cocky, (lousy) basketball player.”
Rivers joked about how endearing he must’ve been then, all bravado, no substance.
But, eventually, his game caught up with his attitude. He became one of the top high school players in the country – the best according to some rankings. He earned a scholarship to Duke.
He left for the NBA after his freshman year and was taken in the lottery, coincidentally with a pick the Clippers had traded to New Orleans to acquire Chris Paul.
But it took awhile to figure things out.
In his first few years in the NBA, Rivers alternated positions, played inconsistent minutes and wasn’t the player he expected to be. A midseason trade last year to the Clippers gave him an opportunity to carve out a role on a contender, but it came with a cost.
Becoming the first NBA player to play for a team coached by his father wasn’t a feel-good story for long. Soon, the narrative became more centered on whispers of nepotism.
“People like to take things away from you,” Austin Rivers said. “It’s crazy how people embrace other players who had dads play in the NBA. Because I work with mine, people give me (expletive).”
His teammates, after some initial curiosity about the dynamic between him and his father, brought Rivers into the fold. Still, it’s made him an easy target.
“It’s unfair. I don’t deserve a lot of it,” he said. “At the end of the day, when I’m on the court, I’m just like anybody else. When I step on the court, it doesn’t matter if my sister or my dog is the coach, it doesn’t matter. When I’m on the court and I score or make a play, that’s me doing it. That’s not him doing that.”
The talk of nepotism, for the most part, has been erased. Rivers has become an important piece off the Clippers bench, an attacking guard with a willingness to take on defensive challenges. And, he’s becoming more consistent.
“I think he’s just realized his impact goes far beyond how he’s playing offensively,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “His one-on-one, on-the-ball defense is tough. He gives guys problems. That’s one thing I tell him before every game, that no one can get around him. When he’s going downhill, being quick and making moves, it’s hard for people to stay in front of him.”
Like before, his game is starting to catch up with his attitude.
In six of his final eight games this season, he scored 10 or more points. In the Clippers’ two playoff games so far, he’s averaging 10 points a game.
He’s also helped keep Portland’s guards in check with his defense, the biggest area where he’s contributed since being traded for.
“[Ex-New Orleans coach Monty Williams] up front said, ‘You’re going to be surprised how good defensively he is,’ which is funny since I’m his dad,” Doc Rivers said. “You would think I would know that. I kind of was like, ‘Yeah I hear you,’ and he said, ‘No, he’s our best defensive player at the guard spot.’ I said, ‘I hear you,’ but I didn’t hear it.
“Monty was right.”
Austin Rivers has taken to defending – he said he wants to make the All-Defensive team someday – but he still identifies as a scorer. Really, there’s not a lot he doesn’t think he can do.
Magic Johnson once told Doc Rivers that belief like that is one of the most important things you can have.
“He said you can’t be a player in this league if you’re not a confident player in this league, and you’ll never be a great player in this league if you’re not a confident player in this league,” Doc Rivers said. “He actually made the comment, ‘No matter how bad you are, you have to be confident.’ I don’t know how you do that, but that’s the trick. You have to have confidence.”
Austin has that part figured out – and then some.
“Some have a lot more confidence than others … and I think I’m one of those people who have a lot more than others,” he said. “That’s just the way I am.”
And if you think he’s just in this position because of his last name, he’s got thoughts on that, too.
“Man, I was nice before I got here,” he said defiantly. “C’mon man. I was the No. 1 player in high school. Go look at the facts. People just want to take that away, but I worked for this.
“I earned it.”