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Coach Doc Rivers identifies with Clippers players, a group that is trying to overachieve

Coach Doc Rivers identifies with Clippers players, a group that is trying to overachieve
Clippers coach Doc Rivers jostles for position as he prepares to pose for a photo with rookie guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and Jerome Robinson (13) during media day. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The white walls of Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ modest office in Staples Center are bare of pictures. Except for a brown bag holding his fish dinner in a to-go box, his desk is free of clutter.

Rivers is sitting there 90 minutes before tipoff Monday evening but the space is so nondescript it could pass for any coach’s office in any NBA arena. In fact, the more Rivers surveys the locker room, the more he feels it’s 1999 and he’s back in Orlando, Fla.

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As a rookie coach that season, Rivers inherited a locker room bereft of stars. His leading scorers were Darrell Armstrong, Ron Mercer, Chris Gatling and Tariq Abdul-Wahad. They won 41 games not because of immense talent but because of what he remembers as competitiveness and buy-in.

“They would do anything” Rivers said. “Those guys are just like this group in a lot of ways.”

Nearly two decades later, he feels something similar about the Clippers. Because of it, Rivers says he is in a good place after a 6-4 start that has seen the Clippers rank in the top 10 in offense and defense.

Gone are the expectations of another title, at least in the short term, but he enjoys coming to work and those with whom he works. It seems simple and yet, in the NBA, it is not always so.

“From a coaching standpoint I really get disenchanted when guys don’t want to mesh for other reasons than basketball,” he said.

“When you’re not successful at getting them to see that you feel like you couldn’t do your job well enough. And that is part of my job. When you get guys to buy in, I think you can overachieve. That gives you a lot of spirit.”

Rivers is associated most with teams that carried the highest Q Rating, having won a title with Boston in 2008 before jumping to Los Angeles five years ago to coach a team with three All-Stars. He perhaps identifies more closely to lower-profile teams like the 1999-2000 Magic and the current Clippers team, however, because of his experience during 13 seasons as a player.

A second-round pick in 1983, Rivers was a one-time All-Star but “was an average player and I was always a role player, and I always got that.”

The Clippers this season are a team of role players who recognize it is in their best interest to hold together and buck expectations. Only five Clippers have guaranteed contracts that extend through next season, making this an audition for their futures.

“I think there’s always an appreciation for a team that puts everything they have into every day and ultimately becomes whatever it is that is possible for them to become,” said Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau, a longtime Rivers assistant in Boston. “He’s a junkie, he loves the game and he loves people that are selfless and put the team first. I think that’s why he has a great appreciation for this team.”

The victory over Minnesota on Monday provided another example. Forward Tobias Harris, who has perhaps the best chance of becoming an All-Star, was the team’s hot hand through three quarters but was barely used in the fourth. He showed no sign of annoyance afterward.

“On any given night, it's gonna be somebody else's night,” Harris said. “I think that's the beauty of our team.”

The team is still a work in progress. The offense has taken time to come together because, as players have said, not everyone knows it inside and out. That unfamiliarity has forced Rivers and his staff to coach more and has turned up the volume of his hoarse voice to rip his team at times during practices. He says he would only do that if he felt invested in their potential.

“I just feel like he has more freedom, he’s able to coach,” said guard Patrick Beverley, in his second season with the team. “When you have superstars it’s very hard to coach. The success that the Clippers had over the years, and the superstars that they had, we’re talking about some of the best people to play the game in the last decade or so. You have that it’s kind of tough, but when you have a group of guys who lay their hat on hard work, it’s kind of easy to coach.”

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To Rivers’ delight, the process has worked so far. Consistent effort is the “Achilles’ heel on any team,” Beverley said, but “he doesn’t have to tell us to play hard.”

“There are years where you just love your group and they love you back,” Rivers said. “Then there are years you just have to push your group and sometimes they don’t love that but you get more out of them — but the relationships aren’t the same.”

This year’s group is “competitive, they want to do right,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they do right all the time but they want to and so it makes you love coaching. It’s why you coach.”

Before agreeing to a contract extension last spring that takes him through 2021, Rivers “took a while to decide on what to do.” He stayed because “I just loved the direction of where we’re going.”

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AT PORTLAND

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: Forward Luc Mbah a Moute (left knee) and guard Avery Bradley (left ankle) will not play. Moe Harkless (knee) is out for the Trail Blazers.

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