RIVERS AND THIBODEAU FOREVER CONNECTED BY TITLE
LOS ANGELES – Watch any replay of the Boston Celtics’ most recent two Finals appearances and you’re likely to see Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau side by side.
In a lot of ways the two fast friends and former colleagues are a reflection of one another. They are diligent preparers, masters of a scrambling team-first defense philosophy, and have no more ardent supporters than the players in their own locker room.
Thibodeau and Rivers own two of the four best winning percentages among head coaches since 2007-08, their first trip to the Finals together. After the Celtics advanced to the Finals again in 2010, Thibodeau was hired by the Bulls. He took Chicago to the Eastern Conference Finals that season behind an MVP season by Derrick Rose. Rivers followed suit a year later, leading Boston to the brink of the Finals for a third time, the first without Thibodeau. Both teams were eliminated by the Heat. Both teams dealt with their superstar point guard tearing an ACL the following year.
They have been close for years. On Sunday, the 13th overall meeting between them but first that did not involve Thibodeau taking on the team he was worked for, their relationship will add another chapter.
“Overall, he wants to beat my brains in and I want to beat his brains in and then I want to take him to dinner,” Rivers said. “And I’d like him to pay for a change.”
Less than 24 hours later, unprompted, Thibodeau said, “Every once and a while he tries to get me to pay for dinner, but I’m not falling for that.”
Thibodeau has owned bragging rights in three years with Bulls beating Rivers’ teams seven times in the past 12 meetings. But playing against each other is a challenge, according to Rivers.
“We’re very close,” Rivers said. “I think everyone knows that. It’s funny. You always want to beat your best friends and Thibs is one of my best friends. But it’s no fun in the same way. We get a couple of chuckles during the game because I’ll see him calling something we ran in Boston and I’m looking at him like, ‘Why would you do that?’”
In the summer of 2008, following the first title together, Rivers said he called Bulls general manager John Paxson to talk up Thibodeau as a head coaching candidate. “I thought Thibs was probably penalized because we went to the Finals,” Rivers posited.
Thibodeau did not get the job, but two years later, after the 2010 Finals, Rivers was on the phone with Paxson again. The Bulls did not waste a second chance to hire Thibodeau, who had been an assistant for 20 years before landing his first gig as a head man. Thibodeau breaking through made Rivers proud, particularly because of how much Thibodeau meant to the Boston title in 2008. Rivers told the Daily Herald in 2010 that it “upset” him when Thibodeau did not the Bulls job the first go-around.
He offered the support of a friend.
A year ago, Thibodeau said similar things when asked by ESPN about his relationship with his former boss. "Anytime you win a championship with somebody it ties you together forever," Thibodeau said. "He's been a good friend for a long time."
For about two and a half hours Sunday afternoon, even if they know what plays are coming, they’ll put their friendship on pause. And maybe Thibodeau will spring for a late lunch before the Bulls leave town.