How the Celtics bounce back from getting toppled by the Heat, that is a question for another day. Priority No. 1 was taken care of Friday when coach Doc Rivers agreed to a five-year extension to remain a Celtic.
This is what Rivers said he was at his core the other night, gracious and optimistic in defeat after the Heat beat the Celtics 97-87 to evict the defending Eastern Conference champs from the postseason in five games. At a time when his players and assistant coaches were hurting — and worse, uncertain about the future — Rivers threw them a lifeline when he calmly revealed in the postgame news conference that he was “leaning heavily” toward coming back.
The finer points of a five-year, $35 million extension were still being discussed, but there will be no hang-ups here. Rivers and general manager Danny Ainge work together like left hand and right, and Rivers revealed in a quiet moment after that Game 5 loss Wednesday night that he was serious about returning. Several weeks ago, he basically informed Celtics management that whatever they worked out with his agent, Lonnie Cooper, he’d agree to.
The five-year deal at $7 million annually has been on the table for three months — perhaps longer, a person familiar with the situation told CBSSports.com Friday. Rivers alluded to the offer Wednesday night on his way out of American Airlines Arena.
“There’s been a contract basically for three months there and Danny and Wyc (Grousbeck) and them have been on the other side of patience,” Rivers said. “And it gave us a long time to talk about it as a family. So I haven’t signed anything or done anything. But it’s there and I probably will sign it.”
The only job that would’ve remotely tempted Rivers, the person with knowledge of Rivers’ situation said, was replacing Phil Jackson with the Lakers. But that wasn’t happening, not with Rivers — not with a Celtic.
“Leaving the Celtics to go to the Lakers would be akin to selling out,” the person said. “He’s old fashioned in a good way that way. That’s the only job that would’ve been of any interest.”
As for the Knicks, a team Rivers played for, New York executives are not believed to have explored whether Rivers would be available or interested. Mike D’Antoni has a year left on his contract, and team president Donnie Walsh is committed to giving D’Antoni a full season with a stable roster before making any rash decisions. But make no mistake: It wouldn’t have mattered. Rivers has grown as close with his players in Boston as any coach in the league, and simply couldn’t walk away — even though some retooling at minimum and rebuilding at worst will be part of the job.
Does Ainge give in to the temptation to trade one of the Big Three at draft time — the same way he acquired Ray Allen in the first place? Does Paul Pierce accept a secondary role, or even go to the bench? Does Jeff Green stay? How do the Celtics upgrade the size and toughness that was lost in the Kendrick Perkins trade?
All these decisions will be made with Rivers completely in the mix, working as effectively with Ainge as any coach and GM tandem in basketball. And don’t forget this: Whatever challenges confront the Celtics, Rivers was adamant about showing the organization the same kind of loyalty it showed him. Before the Big Three were formed, Ainge stuck with Rivers and ignored the groundswell of opinions and speculation that he should be fired. It’s no surprise they’re finding a way to stick together now.
So close are Rivers and Ainge that one person familiar with their relationship suggested that Ainge may have been inclined to leave if Rivers did. That would’ve brought about a swift and painful end to the Celtics of the Big Three era, who progress now into a transition period with the most important piece of the puzzle firmly in place.