Doc Rivers feels Cavaliers' pain
WALTHAM, Mass. -- In the days following a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last June, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers famously (albeit unknowingly) sent a call from President Barack Obama to his voice mail, which tells you all you need to know about his desire for consolatory chitchat.
So imagine Rivers' vexation when his cell phone buzzed virtually nonstop for roughly a month in early 2007. Like Obama, those dialing were well-intentioned, hoping to impart some friendly "keep your head up" advice as Rivers and the Celtics endured a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak from Jan. 7 to Feb. 11.
"It's hell; everybody is calling you," Rivers said after Monday's practice, when the Celtics prepared for Tuesday's visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has lost its past 17 games.
"The coaching network is at work, and people are like, 'How are you?' I'm good if you'd stop calling me," Rivers said with a smile. "That's how you almost felt. Like, 'Hey, leave me alone. I want to do my job.'"
That experience didn't stop Rivers from phoning Cleveland first-year coach Byron Scott to offer the words of encouragement that no coach wants to hear.
"I told him: 'I know everyone's calling you, so I just want to add in,'" Rivers joked. "I called [Cleveland assistant] Paul Pressey, too, because he was on our staff [in Boston from 2004 to '07]."
Ever since the LeBron-less Cavs stunned Boston in their season opener Oct. 27, it's been pretty much downhill for Cleveland. A lopsided loss to the Celtics in a rematch Nov. 30 in Boston kick-started a 10-game losing streak. And if not for an overtime triumph over the New York Knicks on Dec. 18, this current 17-game skid might be of NBA-record length, as it was the only win in Cleveland's past 28 games.
The Cavaliers already own the NBA record for consecutive losses at 24, a streak that spanned from March 19, 1982, into the next season.
Rivers is glad the lean years are behind him. Boston reorganized its roster the offseason after the long skid, uniting the new Big Three, and has been entrenched near the top of the Eastern Conference standings ever since.
With LeBron James in South Beach forming his own vaunted trio, there hasn't been much reason for optimism in Cleveland. Rivers called the losing streak Boston endured "miserable" but said his advice to Scott & Co. is to simply focus on each game.
"When we've had a winning streak, I've never paid much attention to the number," Rivers said. "It was the same way when we were losing. I just went to the next game. You tried to squeeze a win out there and, if you didn't, you just got on to the next one.
"It's so similar to when we've had winning streaks. Everyone talks about it, the winning and losing streaks, but I would say -- both ways -- in the middle, I would never have been able to tell you the actual number. Because that's not what I'm looking at."
When Rivers prepares for the Cavaliers, he certainly doesn't treat them like a team with a league-worst 8-36 record or a 3-22 mark on the road. In fact, those are the sort of numbers that have brought out the worst in a Boston team that owes four of its 10 losses to four of the five worst teams in the Eastern Conference (Cleveland, Toronto, Washington and Detroit).
Fresh off a head-shaking loss to the Wizards on Saturday night in the nation's capital, one in which Boston squandered a 15-point first-quarter lead by sleepwalking through the final three periods, the Celtics know they cannot look past anyone.
"It's all mental with us," center/forward Glen Davis said. "That's all it is. We're trying not to look past anybody but it's something we have to work on."
Unfortunately for Cleveland, Boston's antennae will be up Tuesday night, thanks to Cleveland's win in the teams' first meeting and Saturday's loss at Washington. Fresh off two days of rest, it seems likely the Celtics will be eager to take a little frustration out on a Cavaliers squad that might actually be more dinged up than Boston.
Mo Williams is out indefinitely with a strained left hip flexor, while Ramon Sessions was a game-time decision Monday against New Jersey due to a strained right abdominal (he played). Old friend Leon Powe is sidelined for six weeks after right knee surgery, and Anderson Varejao, perhaps Cleveland's best player, is out out for the season after tearing a tendon in his left foot, a loss that Rivers compared to Boston losing Kevin Garnett.
"Varejao is their Kevin; he really is," Rivers said. "He's an energy guy and he does everything. That's a tough loss. Losing LeBron hurt a little, too, but losing LeBron and Varejao, that's two major losses."
Rivers remembered winning some games during that 2007 season, but when Paul Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak got injured, Boston couldn't keep its head above water, losing those 18 in a row and finishing 24-58.
But Rivers hasn't forgotten what it's like to struggle.
"I feel for any coach that struggles. I sat there [Sunday] night watching my son's college team play," Rivers said after watching his eldest son, Jeremiah, and Indiana University fall 91-77 at Iowa for the team's eighth loss in nine tries.
"You feel for [Indiana coach] Tom Crean because he's doing his best," Rivers said. "He's coaching his butt off. I sat right behind the bench, and you could hear him yelling, screaming and pushing -- just coaching everyone. I've been through it, and it's tough. It's tough for a coach. Every game you have to convince yourself you're going to win that game. Emotionally, when you lose, it's difficult."
Losing, even in small chunks, still isn't easy for Rivers. So if you're thinking about phoning, it might be best to wait until Boston gets back on the winning track.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.