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Clippers honor Doc Rivers in his return, then send him packing again in win over 76ers

76ers coach Doc Rivers pats Dwight Howard on the shoulder after Howard was ejected March 27, 2021.
76ers coach Doc Rivers pats Dwight Howard on the shoulder after Howard was ejected from the Clippers’ 122-112 win Saturday night. Rivers, a former Clippers coach, was honored with a video tribute.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For 80 seconds, the Clippers craned their necks upward, watching the tribute for former coach Doc Rivers on the videoboard suspended above Staples Center’s court. Team owner Steve Ballmer watched too.

And for 80 seconds, Rivers sat amid a tight huddle on the opposite baseline, looking down. Holding a grease board, and the attention of the Philadelphia 76ers, Rivers diagrammed ways to beat five starters he’d spoken with in similar fashion during his last huddle as the Clippers’ coach in September.

When the video finished with Rivers walking off the court, pumping a fist, Ballmer clapped and Rivers walked back into his huddle to continue a homecoming he predicted before tipoff would feel “weird.” It began to feel that way hours before tipoff of the Clippers’ 122-112 win, during the 76ers’ morning shootaround. That’s when Rivers realized much of what the Clippers likely would run under coach Tyronn Lue, a close friend who worked under Rivers as an assistant and considers him an influential mentor, mirrored the 76ers’ playbook.

‘He’s like a savant,’ Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said of guard Rajon Rondo, who was added before the trade deadline.

“They run a lot of the same stuff that I run,” Rivers said.

During Rivers’ seven-year run with the Clippers, his influence was felt beyond the record book, where he stands as the franchise’s winningest coach, Rivers was its face during the turmoil of former owner Donald Sterling’s 2014 ouster by the NBA, and its voice last summer as protests over racial injustice roiled the country. But when the team never reached the Western Conference finals in his seven seasons, capped by last season’s second-round collapse, Ballmer, after conversations with Rivers in the weeks after the postseason, decided to change direction. The Clippers under Rivers, Ballmer believed, had not fulfilled their potential.

 Clippers forward Paul George shoots despite pressure from 76ers guard Furkan Korkmaz.
The Clippers’ Paul George, who finished with 24 points, shoots while being pressured by the 76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz. The Clippers won their fifth in a row.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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“When I took the job, I had several goals,” Rivers said on a videoconference before the game. “One is when you hear the Clipper name, you look at it as a classy organization, an organization that can win. And a championship organization. I think we did that as far as everything except for the championship part. You got to win that to become that obviously.

“Last year we had a shot. This year they have a shot. And I feel like I played a part in that. I was very successful in that way. Never as successful as I wanted to be as far as taking this team all the way to the Finals and winning it.”

With Philadelphia, which hired him days after the Clippers cut ties — a decision Rivers was surprised by at the time — Rivers has a chance to accomplish what eluded him in Los Angeles. The 76ers own the top record in the Eastern Conference and, along with Brooklyn, sit atop the conference’s contender class for a Finals berth. This first matchup between the Clippers and 76ers — which Lue also described as “weird” facing Rivers, who knows his tendencies so well — could be the first of several if the teams advance to the Finals. Those hopes, for Philadelphia, hinge on the health of center and most-valuable-player candidate Joel Embiid, who has missed the last two weeks because of an injured knee, and the play of guard Ben Simmons, who fouled out Saturday four minutes into the fourth quarter with the Clippers leading by 17.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 122-112 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.

Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points, Paul George added 24 and the Clippers pulled away for their fifth consecutive victory by holding the 76ers to fewer than 10 three-pointers through three quarters and exasperating Dwight Howard enough for Embiid’s replacement to be ejected for his second consecutive game at Staples Center. He also was tossed in a victory Thursday over his former Lakers team.

“Philly came out and jumped out to an early lead and we kept our composure,” Lue said. “We kept playing. Our mindset was right. It was hard to get stops tonight because of the way they played with the small lineup, but I thought offensively we did a lot of great things, attacking the paint, making the extra pass, making the play.”

This wasn’t a fully realized display of dominance by the Clippers. New point guard Rajon Rondo sat on the sideline in street clothes, waiting to make his debut since being traded from Atlanta on Thursday. Guard Patrick Beverley and center Serge Ibaka also remain injured, nearly two weeks into their recovery.

The Clippers made one move before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, acquiring Rajon Rondo for Lou Williams and picks. Here’s what it means for the team.

But when Rivers has watched the Clippers, he has seen a crisper version of the team he coached, he said.

“The difference is they’ve had a chance to practice together, you know?” he said. “And you can see that. I think they’ve given the ball to [Paul George] more, which I think has helped him. Him bringing the ball up the floor, so they’ve made some good changes. The biggest change I see also is defensively. I think they are a better defensive team. It’s funny, the numbers don’t exactly say that, but when I watch them I think they’re going to be a better defensive team, one of the better defensive teams when the playoffs start.”

Rivers said he doesn’t watch as much Western Conference basketball as he used to. But his views on the playoff race haven’t changed much since he left.

“Utah is playing unbelievable basketball so they are going to be right there,” he said. “Portland, I thought improved their team as well over the break.

“But I still think it’s the Lakers and the Clippers.”


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