Rivers' faith in Celtics never wavered
"I don't care how frustrating it gets for me, I see it, and whether [the players] see it or not, I see it and I'll get it out of you. I told them after [a loss to Cleveland], I don't know how, but I'll keep working at it. I told them, 'I will get it out of you, I see it.'"
-- Celtics coach Doc Rivers, March 15, 2010
LOS ANGELES -- Somehow, he saw it all along. At least he told us he did.
His team coming off a frustrating mid-March loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Cavaliers the night before in Cleveland, dropping its record to 18-19 since Christmas, Celtics coach Doc Rivers reclined against a wall outside the locker room and offered optimism that even his players struggled to see.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett battled injuries, Ray Allen endured inconsistency amidst trade rumors leading up the February deadline, Rajon Rondo questioned the leadership of the team, and Kendrick Perkins wondered out loud if the Celtics had become bored with the regular season.
Hardly the makeup of a championship-caliber team. The Celtics were imploding, but Rivers remained steadfast that they could accomplish the goal of winning an NBA title set forth from the first time they screamed "Ubuntu" at the start of training camp in October.
A shade more than three months later, Boston stood on the brink of accomplishing that feat, but ran out of steam in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, fumbling away a 13-point second-half lead and falling to the Los Angeles Lakers 83-79 Thursday at the Staples Center.
As he addressed the media at his postgame news conference, Rivers fought back the emotions after coming up short of the ultimate prize and lamented the fact that things are unlikely to ever be the same after a season that was so fulfilling because of the obstacles this team had to overcome.
"There's a lot of crying in our locker room, a lot of people who care," said Rivers. "I don't think there was a dry eye. A lot of hugs, a lot of people feeling awful. That's a good thing. That means everybody cared.
"I just can't stress enough how crazy close this team was and that would be the word, crazy close. They're the type of group that they could scream at each other, but no one [would] pick on any of them. That's a special group."
That closeness was forged over the final months when, even as the Celtics struggled, they banded together with eyes toward Banner 18.
Rivers always believed this team was championship material, even during those dark days in February and March when Boston lost to lowly New Jersey and got blown out by Memphis, both on the Garden floor.
To call Boston's run to the brink of an 18th NBA title improbable wouldn't be fair. This is a team that hung a blank championship banner in its practice facility at the start of the season and displayed a picture of the Larry O'Brien Trophy inside its locker room with the phrase, "Begin with the end in mind," printed below it.
The Celtics overcame so much adversity, but walked away without the prize that would have provided the storybook ending in Hollywood's backyard.
Inside the locker room, Glen Davis summed up the gamut of emotions, noting: "I don't know, I feel like I want to cry and I feel like I want to be mad. Close is not enough. You've got to win it. This is the way it is, someone has to lose and it sucks."
It's that much harder to swallow because this group -- the core of which won a world title in its first season together in 2008 -- might never get a chance to win another. These Celtics might not get another chance to cement their legacy.
Ray Allen, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent, expressed a desire to be back in Boston, but said he'll deal with that when the time comes. He tried to look at the big picture of what the team accomplished this season.
"I'm extremely proud," said Allen. "We're a group of guys that stay within ourselves and do what we're capable of. We fought the good fight all the time. When people didn't believe in us, we stayed true to ourselves and made sure we came in and did our jobs every day.
"We didn't win the final game, but we still have a lot to hold our heads high for."
Celtics players admitted they were drained both physically and mentally by the 2009-10 season. Most expressed a desire to hit the reset button before examining the future.
Kevin Garnett said he wanted everybody back, but sounded hardly optimistic that would happen. Rivers suggested Rasheed Wallace might have played his final NBA game, while his own future remains in limbo. Rivers said he'll take some time off to determine whether he'll return to the Boston bench for another season.
"It's hard, I think everyone is not only physically fatigued, but mentally fatigued," said Garnett. "You rely on a group of guys, you prepare together so much that you grow to enjoy each other and, at the same time, you get tired of each other. You're going to call that guy your brother for life."
But brothers sometimes travel different paths. You're left with the memories. And, for Boston, the sting of Thursday's loss will linger.
In time, the sting should wear off, and the Celtics will be able to marvel at their accomplishments.
"Listen, we had a goal before the year started, and we didn't say we weren't going to go through some trials and tribulations," said Rivers. "We just had a goal to get here, and that was our goal, and to win it. So whatever we had to go through was worth it, the injuries, the chemistry, just everything. It was worth it at the end of the day, and I think every guy would tell you that."
Rivers told us as much on that March night.
"If we can get this right, it will be an unbelievable challenge," Rivers said on March 15. "But if we get this right, it will be an unbelievable feeling at the end because of how we did it."
The Celtics got it right. The ending just came out wrong.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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