EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 14, 2006

Struggling Rivers can't do it on his own

Alan Siegel

BOSTON - Magic forward Grant Hill couldn't help but laugh softly at the question.

"Ultimately," a reporter asked, "does personnel determine a coach's performance?"

"I think it does," he said before grinning and launching into a medicine ball exercise to warm up his left ankle.

Hill played for Doc Rivers - albeit sparingly due to injuries - in Orlando from 2000-03. He's a fan of the recently embattled Celtics coach, but he's also a realist. Hill knows Rivers can only do so much to help the Boston players, who average 23 years apiece. Five of them, including summer acquisition Sebastian Telfair, never played college ball.

"I don't know what's going on up here," the 11-year veteran said last night before the Magic defeated the Celtics 92-89, "but I know he's one of the better coaches I've ever played for.

"I think he definitely has what it takes. Unfortunately, he's off to a slow start."

Hill doesn't have to remind a wary fan base, which has been treated to seven games worth of sluggish basketball. When Rivers was announced over the loudspeaker last night, the announced crowd of 14,379 emitted a smattering of boos.

"Being 1-6 is no fun," the coach said after last night's loss. "But I think (the players) are going to get it. They're close."

Rivers has been here before. He was fired in 2003 after his Orlando club began the season 1-10. People forget that the axing came after he led the Magic to three straight playoff appearances. And that was mainly without the oft-injured Hill. "I played maybe 40 games in those years," he said.

Those teams did have Tracy McGrady, who as Rick Pitino might say, isn't walking through the Garden door any time soon.

"He does have passion, he cares," Hill said of Rivers. "He's a great motivator. I think that players enjoy playing for him."

That might be true. But can they win for him?

"I don't know, I don't know the personnel," said Magic forward Bo Outlaw, who also played for Rivers in Orlando.

It always comes back to the personnel, doesn't it? Other than the consistent play of star guard Paul Pierce (26.3 points, 1.7 rebounds per game heading into last night), the young bunch occasionally shows flashes of what general manager Danny Ainge hoped it was capable of.

Take, for example, Leon Powe's first-half performance last night. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound rookie forward out of California scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds in the first 16 minutes of his NBA career. He finished 3 of 6 from the floor and even showed some range by stroking a 17-foot jumper to cut the Orlando lead to 30-28 with 7:44 left in the second quarter. Powe finished the night with 10 points and seven boards in 25 minutes on the court.

"Powe was absolutely tremendous," Rivers said.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, any truly brilliant moments have been overshadowed by infuriating lapses.

Take, for example, Saturday night's performance against Cleveland. Boston blew a 19-point fourth quarter lead in a 94-93 loss even though its team defense, which has been painfully porous so far (as of last night it was fifth worst in the league at 104.2 points allowed per game) looked solid at the outset.

"We took steps (to improve on D) in the Cleveland game," second-year guard Ryan Gomes said. "We did a good job of defending those guys for three and a half quarters."

Then, panic, or nerves, or something unexplainable, set in.

"We tried to secure the win too early," Gomes said. "We looked up at the scoreboard and it was like 'Oh my god, they're getting closer and closer."

Kind of like the people calling for Rivers' job, which may be in jeopardy if the Celtics don't improve soon.