Yet consider that about 100 lightning bolts reach the earth’s surface every second—statistically, hundreds of thousands of people are going to get hit annually, with somebody bound to take multiple zaps. - Steve Mirsky
The fourth-seeded Sixers are winning 3-2 in a first-round playoff series vs. the fifth-seeded Raptors. If that’s all you’d heard coming into the series, you’d probably breathe a massive sigh of relief. But having lived the who, what, where, when, and why of it all, it’s been a lot more stressful than that simple summary.
The Sixers went up three to zip, we learned Joel Embiid was injured, they dropped Game 4, Embiid had an MRI which confirmed suspicions he has ligament damage in his right thumb and needs offseason surgery, and then they laid a total, disheartening, rotten egg on their home floor in Game 5. And now we’re all mostly waffling between all out panic and our par for the course sweaty playoff nausea.
With everyone worrying about the 2021-2022 Philadelphia 76ers becoming the first team ever to lose a series when winning 3-0, their head coach’s own association with historic playoff collapses has come up.
Rivers was asked about it at practice Wednesday:
Doc Rivers got a little defensive when discussing his past teams' collapses pic.twitter.com/88PqjDDUZa— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 27, 2022
“Well it’s easy to use me as an example. But I wish ya’ll would tell the whole story, with me. My Orlando team was the eighth seed. No one gives me credit for getting out [to a big lead] against the Pistons who won the title. That was an eighth seed. Go look, I want you to go back and look at that roster. I dare you to go back and look at that roster. And you would say ‘what a hell of a coaching job.’ Really.
“The Clipper team that we lost 3-1, Chris Paul didn’t play in the first two games. And was playing on one leg. And we didn’t have home court. And then the last one, to me is the one we blew. That’s the one I said ‘we blew that.’ And that was in the bubble. And anything can happen in the bubble, there’s no home court. Game 7 would have been in L.A. But it just happens. So I would say with me some of it is I gotta do better, always. Always take my own responsibility. And some of it is circumstances happen. This one, let’s win it, and then we don’t have to talk about it.”
Doc Rivers is the only coach to have lost a series when leading 3-1 more than once. He’s done that three times. ESPN gave a little summary of those recently, following these comments from Doc.
I’ll defend Rivers here to say that he’s right, it was a pretty big achievement for his Magic to even go up 3-1 on that Pistons team. (For the record, Detroit didn’t win the title that season as Doc seems to imply, it wasn’t until they brought in coach Larry Brown and traded for Rasheed Wallace the following year that they went on to win it). But to the spirit of his point, that Chauncey Billups and the bulk of an eventual title-winning-nucleus solved the Magic’s feeble riddle wasn’t so much a Rivers issue. It was perhaps inevitable. If they’d never led 3-1 but forced a seventh game as an 8th seed in another sequence we’d simply celebrate his effort. I’ll bite, hell of a coaching job, really.
The 3-1 series lead the Clippers blew to Daryl Morey and James Harden’s Rockets in 2015, Doc makes another fair point that he was missing Chris Paul for some of that one. And he wasn’t quite healthy for the rest. That’s a fair asterisk. A fully healthy CP and things probably turn out differently, with all due respect to Austin Rivers; even if Doc could have perhaps done a couple things differently to stem the tide of a 40-15 run led by Josh Smith and The Drunken Dribbler, Corey Brewer, with Harden on the bench in a pivotal Game 6.
And to his credit, Doc owns his share of L.A.’s failure in the bubble (although reports came out back in 2020 that he actually defended his ineffective rotation decisions, and part of not seeing eye-to-eye on what went wrong with Clips’ owner Steve Ballmer, contributed to the sides parting ways).
But I see Doc here in a sympathetic light on the two of those three series. It’s really difficult to keep a coaching job in the NBA. The average stint is short. For the legends of the game who are so good that they keep getting chances, it’s inevitable that a couple of those guys are going to wind up with some wild results. And it’s hard to go up 3-1 in the first place. It’s rather arbitrary and far more random than our postscript narratives tend to acknowledge.
Imagine if someone told you he or she were struck by lightning twice. You might think man, holy mackerel, do you have bad luck. But what if the dude said he lives in the Caribbean and works outside on a farm during the rainy season? And what if he next told you that the average farmer gets fired after two or three seasons but he was in the 90th percentile of farmers over a two-decade span so kept getting all the shifts? Now suddenly, you figure, well, if anyone in history were to be struck by lightning more than once, it would be someone like you, wouldn’t it?
Indeed, of all of the greatest coaches in history, it makes sense a couple would have had multiple gut wrenching results; primarily because others simply do not get multiple chances. One bad result and new coaches are usually toast.
So that Doc was up 3-1 and lost instead of being tied 2-2 before he lost, or that it happened multiple times, to me isn’t a very big deal. We as a species underestimate randomness and our narratives don’t place much emphasis on who was better or who had a hamstring or a thumb. How differently would Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey or James Harden be seen if CP3 never pulled a hammy in 2018? How about if Harden didn’t pull one in Brooklyn a year ago?
I see some folks saying he’s making excuses and blah blah. Meh, I think it’s fine. If I were him I’d want to defend that part of my resume too. I’d see this as a “safe” way I could push back on a mostly overblown narrative without implying my current players screwed anything up.
Now, is there still a pattern of underachievement here on Doc’s resume? Probably, yeah. If the offseason arrives sooner than Sixers Nation hopes, I’ll build a case for why they should move on from Rivers. But if I did I wouldn’t focus on losing 3-1 leads many years ago. I won’t even overreact to his level of responsibility for blowing a 3-0 lead since I think the first, second, and third reason it would happen if it does, is Embiid’s thumb and Harden’s... well... Harden’s something.
The stakes are really high for Doc because rival fans and television pundits won’t hear our point about Hall of Fame banana farmers. They’ll just see an unprecedented choke performance. They won’t note that Doc had been out coaching Raptors coach Nick Nurse while Embiid was still healthy. They may not note injuries when evaluating Embiid’s performance either. Harden never gets the benefit of the doubt. And that’s unfortunate but that’s the business.
If Embiid never tore his thumb, I think they’d already be watching film on the Heat.
But now as Doc says, they need to win one of the next two so we don’t have to have these horrible conversations at all; otherwise Doc will have one more asterisk to (reasonably) point out.