It was just one bottle, but the pop of its cork sounded as sweet to the Los Angeles Clippers as several crates worth of champagne. A season that began with modest expectations – worse than modest, according to some alleged experts – and then appeared to shift into reverse two-thirds of the way through the schedule merited a little celebration.
So that’s what they did last week in Minneapolis, with coach Doc Rivers handing the bubbly duties to forward Danilo Gallinari after their blue-collar team clinched a berth in the 2019 Western Conference playoffs.
This is the start. pic.twitter.com/k1251e8jtx
— x – LA Clippers (@LAClippers) March 27, 2019
They took some teasing for what was, that particular evening, an unremarkable March victory over a lottery-bound Timberwolves team in Minnesota. But when you’re picked not just to miss the playoffs but to finish significantly below .500, and when you instead snag not merely a postseason berth but stay positioned to push into the top four in the ultra-competitive West, heck, tease away.
Twice so far, these Clippers have proved folks wrong. They already surpassed the preseason expectations of many. And they have gone 17-5 since the February trade deadline, when they cashiered three-fifths of their early-season starting lineup. In the process, Rivers has thrust himself into Coach of the Year debates (20 years after he won it as a rookie coach in Orlando in 1999-2000) while getting his team back to the postseason after a two-year absence.
Before and after LA’s game at Milwaukee Thursday, Rivers spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. This Q&A is edited from those conversations.
Steve Aschburner: So I’ve never seen a team so happy to convey a first-round draft pick to a rival. [The Clippers owed Boston a first-round pick stemming from their 2016 deal with Memphis for Jeff Green. That pick was lottery-protected in 2019 and 2020, converting to a 2022 second-round pick if not conveyed by then.]
Doc Rivers: The way we looked at it, and what people didn’t understand, was that we were going to lose it next year anyway. The pick was either going to go this year or next year. So take your medicine now. At the point of the [February] trades, even if we quote-unquote tanked, we still wouldn’t have gotten a great pick. It was too late.
SA: You should think about turning the number 33, your expected victory total according to some experts, into a jersey emblem for the playoffs. Or a rallying cry.
DR: Yeah, yeah, “15 > 33.”
SA: And your plan is to improve your position further, if possible?
DR: We’re not done. We took a second to celebrate. Took another second [Wednesday night] to celebrate Ralph [Lawler, the team’s iconic broadcaster wrapping up his 40-year gig]. We’ve enjoyed the journey throughout. We’ve had a lot of dinners together as a group. So it’s been that type of team. But in our minds, we’re not done. We want to keep pushing. See where we can get, and then once we get in, see what we can do.
SA: How did you get here, after those roster moves? [The Clippers traded their All-Star candidate Tobias Harris, with Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philadelphia for Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and four future draft picks. They sent Avery Bradley to Memphis for JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple, flipped Muscala to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac and waived Marcin Gortat and Milos Teodosic. Harris, Bradley and Gortat had started 55, 49 and 43 games respectively for the Clippers.]
DR: It was the toughest challenge from a coaching standpoint I’ve ever faced. We had a group of guys who were playing absolutely fantastic. And we were on our way to making the playoffs, though we were still seeded eighth. And not only did we trade, but we ended up getting way younger. We went to playing [Zubac] at 22, [rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander] at 20, and [Shamet] at 22 in our starting lineup. So when you think about that part of it, and yet we got better.
SA: Why have they, despite their inexperience, been able to handle what you’ve thrown at them?
DR: We don’t give them a lot of excuses. I told ’em that the first day: “Youth is not an excuse.” We say it every day. “Let’s not use youth as a reason we’re losing.” We tell them, “We forgive you for all mistakes because someone tricked you or vetted you. But there’s no forgiveness for not playing hard. They’re no forgiveness for not having focus. There’s no forgiveness for not knowing the game play.” You can know that at 18.
So I think they’ve bought into that. And I think we have the right players around them. Lou [Williams] and Pat [Beverley] and Gal [Gallinari] do not give them a break. If they mess up something from walk-through, I don’t have to say a lot. They’ve already heard. And I think that has helped them all.
SA: What do you like about this lineup now compared to the one that began the season?
DR: It’s fast. It’s more athletic. Since the trade, our team is deeper, which obviously we didn’t know that was gonna happen. We didn’t know Sham was going to be as good as he is. And JaMychal and Zub. We ended up getting the right pieces. Put ‘em together, obviously they’re very fast. They fit. They play together. it’s been great.
SA: Did it bother you that the initial public reaction to the moves was “The Clippers must be tanking?”
DR: I wasn’t bothered because I knew we were not. Now I didn’t know if we could do this, I didn’t know if we could win. [But] everybody we brought in here fits our DNA.
SA: You decided to hold out Williams and Beverley against the Bucks, which surely didn’t improve your chances of closing out the road trip at 4-0. As an old-school guy – this is your 20th season as an NBA head coach – was it difficult to accept the idea of healthy scratches?
DR: I’ve never come around to it. I just do it. Really, I don’t even try to figure it out. I never fought it, I can say that. I figure, it’s here. It is what it is. All [fighting it] is going to do is bring anxiety to me.
We were not taught that as players or built that way. We wanted to play. When guys were hurt, we looked forward to it, because that meant we played all game. That’s how it was and it’s just different now. And that’s fine. Every once in a while, I’ve had some disagreements over practice. You’ve had a day off and then the next day, they’ll tell you that no one can practice. I’ve had a little problem with that. But other than that, I’m fine with it.
SA: Have you resisted any of the trends in recent years, such as sleep studies, nutrition, travel demands and so on?
DR: Nah, I’ve been pretty good. I think me and Nate [McMillan, Pacers coach] – we hired a sleep doctor in Boston – were the guys to do that. I just know what I don’t know. I’ve always been willing. Even as a player, I was doing acupuncture. I’ve always been a guy who says, “Let’s try it.” But do it with open eyes. If it’s not working, then we’ll adjust. All of it is not good. But some of it is good.
If you played on all analytics and no feel, that’s not good. Like I’ve always believed, you use them all as tools. Sometimes I do the right things, sometimes I do the wrong things. You just keep going.