Rivers: "I'm a Celtic."
MIAMI - From the outside looking in, there was plenty of speculation. Was this the last stand of the Big Three era? Was Doc Rivers done coaching? Would Shaq retire? Would the band break up?
Would the Boston Celtics have to dream it all up again?
Minutes after the Miami Heat ended the Celtics' season with a 97-87 loss in Game 5, Doc Rivers ended all of the talk by suggesting that he's leaning toward returning as coach for another season, shocking media members who all seemed to think Rivers had just coached his final game with the Celtics.
"I'm leaning heavily (toward) coming back," Rivers said. "I haven't made that decision, but I can tell you I probably will. I've kind of come to that over the last couple of weeks."
The scene was very different from Rivers' final postgame press conference of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles last June, when he took the podium after a heartbreaking Game 7 loss and sounded like a man ready to move on. Rivers got a standing ovation from the media at that presser, something that just simply doesn't happen in the world of sports journalism, and it seemed to most in the room like a seminal moment, a culmination of an era being put to bed.
Of course, Rivers ended up coming back for another run. And here we are almost a year later, and Rivers is instead looking for yet another crack at it. Rivers' next words were simple, but they carried an enormous weight with his organization and the league as a whole.
"I'm a Celtic... and I love our guys," he said.
He did leave himself some wiggle room, but he'd have a hard time backing off those words now. Rajon Rondo, a headstrong guy who's certainly had ups and downs with his coach over the years, said afterward that he would hold his coach to them.
"I'm going to put this on the record: Doc already committed, said he's coming back. He can't go back on his word," Rondo said after sitting out the final quarter of Game 5 with a bad back, elbow and shoulder. "We look at it probably as a failure this year not winning a championship, but the core will be here. We'll be fine."
There are 29 other teams in the league, but few have the same cache, and none have as many NBA titles. Rivers still wants to hang one more banner.
"I want to win again here, and I'm competitive as hell. I have a competitive group, so we'll see," Rivers said. "I can tell you that is where I am at today, tomorrow I may change my mind, but that's where I am at today."
Where the Celtics are at today is banged up, tired and eliminated from the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Talk radio and blogs will once again question the Kendrick Perkins trade and midseason moves that reshuffled the deck, but as Rondo said, the Celtics' core of himself, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are all safe bets to be back in Celtics green.
After that, it's hard to say.
A solemn Pierce said he "knew for a fact" that there'd be more changes to the roster this summer, given the number of expiring contracts in the Celtics locker room. One of the most common criticisms of the Celtics was that they were too old, but the Big Three weren't the ones who were hurt. Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal didn't see nearly the amount of playing time that they'd hoped to, and young guns Jeff Green and Glen Davis never really found a groove in the postseason. But overall, the Celtics were overmatched against a Miami team with two superstars who got the benefit of the doubt with nearly every whistle, and are also incredible basketball players who can break almost anyone down off the dribble, or kill you from long range if you leave them open.
"Miami is a terrific team. Those three guys are tough, and those two guys [Dwyane Wade and LeBron James] are monsters," Rivers said. "When they are making shots, it makes it very difficult. The drives you can try to take away, but when they are making jump shots like they were, they are tough to beat."
Given that Danny Ainge has constructed his teams with an eye on the competition, expect the Celtics to make moves this summer designed to help them against the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
In the meantime, a very long summer is underway; a summer that many feel came much too early.