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Sunday, April 1, 2012
Updated: April 2, 4:37 PM ET
Doc Rivers mixing right formula

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- As Doc Rivers headed for his postgame news conference following the Boston Celtics' emphatic 91-72 spanking of the Miami Heat, he stopped to exchange greetings with Steve Pagliuca, one of the Celtics' owners.

Pagliuca had one word for Rivers: "Genius."

That may be a reach, but you can make a case that Rivers is doing one of the best coaching jobs of his career, surpassing his first season in Orlando, when he was named Coach of the Year, and the 2007-08 campaign, when he coached the Celtics to their 17th NBA title.

Doc Rivers
Doc Rivers isn't making excuses or losing his optimism, and the Celtics have responded.

Think of what Rivers has had to deal with, starting with the lockout-shortened season. He had to integrate a slew of new bodies, most of them veterans. Then, before the season even opened, the team's putative sixth man, Jeff Green, was lost for the year with a heart condition.

Jermaine O'Neal is gone. (OK, he was rarely here, but he was a body, even a live one sometimes.) Chris Wilcox is gone. Mickael Pietrus doesn't look like he's walking through that door anytime soon. Throw in the fact the team, like most others, has had little to no time for practice and, well, you can understand why Rivers looks a little beat up. That's because he is.

"I was talking to some friends the other day and they said, 'You look exhausted,'" Rivers recounted after the Miami game. "I said, 'That's because I am.' It's no look. This is, by far, the hardest season I've ever gone through. It has been unbelievable."

Then he added, "But one of the things I said at the outset of all this is that it is going to be difficult for everyone, not just us. So don't feel sorry for us."

Well, there's difficult and then there's difficult. Losing two of your rotation regulars to heart conditions? One of them for an entire season? When I ran those odds by Miami's Ronny Turiaf, who also had a heart condition, he said, simply, "I am not a mathematician, but I know that's very unlikely."

Rivers has had no legitimate center since O'Neal shut it down for the season. So he improvised and decided to use Kevin Garnett there and to go with rookie Greg Stiemsma as a backup. That plan went into effect after the All-Star Game. The Celtics are 15-5 since then as Garnett has elevated his game at both ends of the floor. When the usually reliable Ray Allen went down, Avery Bradley stepped in and added to the team's already strong defensive presence.

The Celtics are still adding players, having signed Ryan Hollins recently. Pietrus came on board in January. Rivers has used 15 starting lineups this season, fifth most in the NBA.

"I think he has done a masterful job this year, especially with the lineups, considering we had a [lockout]," Pagliuca said. "Danny [Ainge] has brought in the players, but Doc has orchestrated it all extremely well."

Through all the chaos and cacophony, Rivers has maintained a decidedly upbeat tone, emphasizing his belief that his team, when playing as he thinks it should, can beat anyone. He talked about how the club was "in a good place" a couple of hours before it was vaporized by the Philadelphia 76ers in a big game in March. He didn't change a thing.

He still thinks the team is in a good place and it certainly was Sunday, holding the Heat to a season low in points as well as inflicting the largest beating on Miami this season in terms of point differential.

"We're a team that, to me, is still trending up," Rivers said. "And that's a good thing."

Rivers also has to get credit for not allowing the Celtics to cave in in the midst of all the injuries and uncertainty, not to mention a pair of five-game losing streaks that resulted in a sub.-500 record at the All-Star break. His continued optimism helped. But so did the fact he has a team of grown-ups.

"I had to get on one of our coaches the other day because he showed, well, not panic, but it was one of those 'What else can go wrong?' type of things," Rivers said. "I said, 'We can't ever think that way.' Because [the players] will know. We just can't think like that. But this is where having a good locker room can save your team when things like this happen. A bad locker room, and this thing would have blown up."

Pagliuca concurred, saying, "This is probably the most positive group of guys we've had here in 10 years. They're tight. They care about each other. But so much of that is Doc. He's unstoppable. He believes and they start to believe."

The seeing-is-believing Celtics have won five straight and seven of eight. They kicked off a hellish month of April with a convincing beatdown of one of the conference's titans.

They're not going to catch Chicago or Miami, but they are still ahead of Philadelphia and are basically tied with Atlanta. They're not that far astern of Indiana or Orlando, either. The schedule may indeed be their undoing, but right now the Celtics are, as Rivers noted, "trending up" and it's in no small part due to their coach.

Turiaf, a non-factor Sunday (as were most of the Heat players), decided to take a contract offer from Miami over the Celtics, but admitted it was a hard decision. He said one of the plusses in Boston would have been the chance to play for a "future Hall of Fame coach."

Rivers laughed when he heard that one. "Now there's pressure," he said.

Hall of Famer? Genius? Doc Rivers may be one or the other, both or neither, but what he has done this season with what he has had to work with borders on the otherworldly.