LOS ANGELES: Doc Rivers first came into Paul Pierce’s life in the fall of 2004, and the early results were jarring, with clashing ideas and the odd emotional head butt.
Almost 12 years later, with the pair reunited under the banner of the Los Angeles Clippers, mutual friends swear they no longer need talk to communicate. Ideas and instincts flow through other inaudible means.
But looking back, Pierce remembers what a disruption the hoarse-voiced, uncompromising Rivers was to his routine and playing style. He remembers thinking that he didn’t want those changes.
He strained to think of a comparison Saturday. Pierce had just finished a rigorous pre-practice workout in the Clippers’ training facility, and he was breathing hard and perspiring heavily.
“It’s probably like a culture where they used to put a wife on you and you never met her before,” said Pierce, really reaching now for a comparison.
“What kind of religion does that? Hindu? Yeah, a Hindu wedding. You don’t know her at the time, but you have to get to know her and to love her. It was sort of like that.”
Pierce, 38, is suffering from diminished production and minutes. His jumper has flattened out. It skims off the rim more. He has started most games in the absence of Blake Griffin, but only plays late when the matchups are favorable.
Rivers anticipates that his old star will really add value once the playoffs begin, when the instinct from 158 playoff games will kick in. But there’s more to Pierce’s time here.
In Washington last season, he was the upbeat uncle, basking in the enthusiasm of young teammates like John Wall and Bradley Beal. Here his words are a tad more sober, but still impactful.
On the team of Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, only a veteran like this can come in and speak effectively.
“It’s a respect. When he talks, you listen,” said Austin Rivers, the coach’s son and the team’s backup point guard. “He’s been through everything and he’s a champion. A Hall of Fame player, so when he talks you know there’s a reason.”
That reason helps Doc Rivers. He no longer has to be the first line of communication with his players. Pierce, careful not to step on the toes of team leaders, is sometimes the first voice in the huddle, before the coach then slides in. Sam Cassell saw this dynamic at play during the Celtics’ 2007-08 championship season, except that Pierce’s voice was joined by Kevin Garnett’s sonic exhortations and Ray Allen’s calmer messages.
“A guy who’s been that long with Doc, he knows his mind,” said Cassell, the former Celtics guard who is now a member of Rivers’ staff. “Doc had Paul when he was 28 or 29, and there’s a different role on this team. He’s here to give us that leadership that we need. He understands basketball — he understands defensive rotations. He’s always in the right place. Doc communicates with Paul about that. He always knows where to be because he’s been in the system for so long.”
And when someone doesn’t get back on defense — yes, it happens on a team as good as the Clippers — Pierce takes it as personally as Rivers.
Rivers can hear the forward’s frustrated voice as he enters the huddle, Pierce getting on his fellow veterans for loafing after a missed shot or a sour offensive possession.
“He knows when I’m not happy with a player, or a situation,” Rivers said. “There have been 20 times when I’ve come into the huddle and he’s already voicing the opinion I would voice, and that helps. Now, when I come in it’s the second time they’ve heard it. Hey, man, you have to get back on defense. That’s the one thing we have to do. I can hear him, and then I come in the huddle and repeat it, and now they’ve already heard it twice. It’s always better coming from a player.”
A player who last year wasn’t even in the same conference.
Out of isolation
Pierce was the offense under his second coach and third coach with the Celtics—Jim O’Brien and John Carroll. He averaged the most shots of his career from his first playoff season in 2000-01 through 2003-04, the season before Rivers arrived.
Pierce was an “iso” player in every sense of the word. The image of Pierce, pounding the ball on the left wing as he talked non-stop trash to crouched defender Ron Artest, and then hitting the shot, defined his thoughts about offense at this time.
So Rivers came in and told Pierce to replace volume with efficiency. Give up the ball and move. Better shots will come back to you.
And get back on defense. Rivers started pulling Pierce near the end of the second quarter. He tried not to look but clearly noticed as a blank-faced Pierce headed to the opposite end of the bench and stewed.
“That was a time when I wanted to end quarters,” Pierce said. “I’m pretty sure we had a discussion about that. It wasn’t anything that stuck with me, but I’m sure I said something. At that age, I never wanted to come out of games. I was young, immature, what, 26, 27? Young and stubborn, frustrated with the losing. It was a combination of things.”
And then Rivers started digging at his game, demanding Pierce move without the ball. So, Pierce looked around. During the two-season playoff drought following a 2005 first-round loss to Indiana, what he saw was a lot of youth. A lot of inexperienced youth that didn’t deserve the ball.
“Doc wanted me to change and I wanted him to do things a certain way,” Pierce said. “A lot of times he tried to have me change my game — take less shots — things of that nature, move the ball more. And I was like, if we had someone else who could make shots, I would move it more.
Pierce told himself that Rivers would change. That his big numbers would wear the coach down.
“I remember a game where we won, I took him out in the fourth quarter,” Rivers said of a game during his first season with the Celtics. “It wasn’t a turning point, but I think he knew that this fool, or whatever he wanted to call me at the time, is not changing.
“I told him I will lose my job, but I won’t change,” Rivers said. “I said I believe this, I believe it’s the right thing, I believe it’s the right thing for you even though you don’t. But I am not giving in.”
Then Pierce’s shooting percentages started to rise even as his attempts went down. By the time Pierce missed 35 games with a foot stress reaction during the horrid 24-win 2006-07 season, the change had actually occurred. The team had never been worse — one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history was a year away — and for the first time Pierce thought he wanted to leave. But he had signed onto Rivers’ plan by then.
“It wasn’t just one conversation,” Pierce said. “We had our talks in the office or a hotel room. It was just time, man. I remember coming back and talking to Doc and talking to (C’s executive) Danny (Ainge). Danny really helped in the process, I think, telling me you have to be an example not only to the coach but to the young guys.”
Rivers’ stubbornness was thus rewarded.
“I give all the credit to Paul because the player has to make that change,” he said. “What he saw was that his percentages were up. All of a sudden, he was shooting the ball and doing it with less effort. He was more efficient.
Dad to the bone
It’s hard to quantify how much Pierce has mellowed.
“He seems like his career is coming to an end — it seems like that, because the last couple of years he would definitely act up a little bit more,” said former Celtics teammate Brandon Bass, who now puts on a uniform down the Staples Center hallway with the Lakers. “The last time I played against him he was the same Paul. He talked (trash) to me. He just joked that he knows my game, the things that I have, things of that nature.”
But when Rivers subs him out of a game now, Pierce welcomes the break. Indeed, he often needs one.
“He would like to play better, and it’s been a hard thing for him and me, just trying to figure out how to do it. Trying to ease him into the end of the year, I’ve never had to sub him this way or play him this way. I don’t know if we’ve done it right, but it’s starting to come around and you can see his energy starting to come back up. All year I’ve thought: Am I not playing him enough? Am I not practicing him enough? That’s a difficult one.”
Pierce, in turn, is debating retirement now, weighing it against the way he’s playing. His mellowing has almost caught friends by surprise. Maybe it snuck up on him, too, abruptly triggered by a move back to his hometown.
“My kids did that to me,” he said. “When you get to the point in your life when you have kids — I have three, two boys and a girl — a lot of things about life change. You don’t do a lot of things you used to do. You go to bed a lot earlier, wake up a lot earlier, you’re just not as uptight as you used to be when you come home. The kids come up to you and put a smile on your face. They’ve done a good job for me attitude-wise.
“It’s good being around my mom, who didn’t get a chance to come to Boston a lot. Probably made it out there once a year, if that. Uncles, my high school coach, a lot of people who saw the process, who didn’t know that Paul Pierce was going to be Paul Pierce at the time, me becoming an NBA player and win the championship. I’m able to come back home and finish my career in front of them. It brings sadness and joy to them, because they know this will be a new road. I can see it now.”
Rivers can understand that on another level. He gets to coach Paul Pierce again, this time with complete, mutual understanding.
“He’s so mellow,” Rivers said. “He knows what he knows, so he’s not threatened by what he doesn’t know anymore. He’s in a great place. This summer will be big for him because he has to figure out what he wants to do. I was never that good. They told me please don’t come back at the end of my career.”