This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 14 One Day, One Game issue.
CHRIS PAUL IS hunched over, hands on knees, staring off into the Staples Center crowd. The Clippers are clinging to a one-point lead over the Warriors late in the third quarter, and Paul has been called to the sideline by Doc Rivers -- again.
This is the seventh time in the quarter (but not the last) that Rivers will beckon his point guard during a break in the action, imploring Paul to push the tempo, pass the ball ahead, make quicker decisions. The coach's hands are a flurry of activity, as if working an imaginary pick-and-roll. Rivers, a former point guard, seemingly can't help himself from using every dead ball as an opportunity to reinforce his message. Paul, though, is struggling -- he has missed eight of his first nine shots -- and he looks tense, as though he's unable to absorb any more instruction.
Rivers knew there would be nights like this. In fact, he predicted it at the start of the season, his first with the Clippers after nine seasons, and one NBA championship, with the Celtics. Early in training camp, Rivers laid it out for his new team: This is going to be a love-hate relationship. Sometimes you're going to hate me, because some of you haven't heard the truth about your games in a very long time, and that's exactly what I'm going to give you.
Only a few coaches have the cachet, the job security, to criticize their star players day in and day out, asking for tweaks that may seem insignificant in the moment but are intended to produce big changes at the end of a play and even bigger ones at the end of a game. Rivers, 52, is one of those coaches. Vinny Del Negro, who was fired by the Clippers at the end of last season, was not.
The Clippers have one of the most talented rosters in the NBA. They are first in the league in points per game (through March 25), second in offensive efficiency, third in assists. They will eventually pull away from the Warriors for their ninth consecutive win, a streak that will end at 11. The team is even deeper and more versatile than last season's, especially since the recent additions of forwards Danny Granger and Glen Davis. But the biggest difference maker may be the guy standing on the sideline.
Most fans assume that if the Clips are going to avoid bowing out in the first round of the playoffs again and make a deep run, they'll need Paul and power forward Blake Griffin to be superhero versions of themselves: more dimes, more dunks, more dominance. But what they'll really need, Rivers believes, is more trust. And the coach is steadily building it, hoping his players will see his constant tiny adjustments not as an irritation but as a path to an NBA title.
NBA PLAYERS OFTEN complain about wasted time: sitting in the film room or standing on the practice court for no urgent reason. According to several Clippers, Del Negro routinely held long film sessions, showing various views on the same error, hammering home one point from a dozen angles. For some coaches, just one more -- one more clip, one extra drill, one last time through -- can feel like the difference between winning and losing.
But the best teams make a habit of doing things once, correctly. So Rivers will show a clip or make an adjustment, ask if everyone is on the same page, then move on. During one stretch in March, the Clippers didn't practice for two weeks; they simply made tweaks during shootarounds. After the win over the Warriors, Rivers cancels the next day's practice, telling his team to meet at 3 p.m. to catch the bus to the airport. In exchange for less court time, he expects to see a higher level of focus and energy during games. "A lot of coaches aren't so secure in themselves," says Clippers reserve forward Jared Dudley. "They would worry someone from the front office might look in and say, 'Hey, why haven't they been practicing?' Most coaches would overpractice you."
Still, running Rivers' offense is a demanding job. It's no secret that he butted heads with Rajon Rondo in Boston; now, though, the two trade text messages on a regular basis. "Overall, I have amazing relationships with the point guards who have played for me," Rivers says. "But obviously there are ups and downs. Sometimes I go over the line."
Rivers came to the Clippers with a reputation as a players' coach. But just as reading a scouting report isn't a substitute for guarding someone, hearing stories about a coach isn't the same as playing for him. Context is key. "Players want to find out if you know what you're talking about when it pertains to them, to the way they do things," Rivers says. "Every one of them will tell you they want to win, but I don't think everybody in the league means that. I think they mean it as long as they can keep doing whatever it is they want to do. Winning requires sacrifice."
Under Del Negro, the Clippers leaned heavily on Paul and Griffin, especially at the end of games and in the playoffs, when the long grind of a back-and-forth series demands superior half-court execution. In these key moments, Del Negro would inevitably run an isolation play for one of his stars. Just as frequently, the defense would send a double-team, and because iso plays aren't usually designed with strong second and third options, the Clippers would find themselves exposed like a king on a chessboard -- desperate and surrounded, looking for an escape route that often didn't exist.
"I think Chris realized last year in the playoffs, holding the ball, getting double-teamed, getting down to late shot clocks every time, you're not going to win that way," Rivers says. "Movement, quick decisions, pulling it and swinging it and trusting the pass -- that makes Chris impossible to guard. And I think he realizes it now."
At the start of the season, Paul pushed back. He was used to having the ball in his hands for the majority of every possession, controlling the rhythm of the offense with his dribble. Rivers was asking him to give up the ball early and only sometimes get it back later, requiring a new level of trust in his teammates.
And then Rivers asked for even more. When Paul was sidelined with a shoulder injury for 18 games in January and February, Rivers urged him to consider giving up the ball even earlier, while still in the backcourt. Paul smiles thinking about the term Rivers used: the hockey assist. "Sometimes it's about the pass that leads to the pass," says Paul, a seven-time All-Star who was averaging 18.8 points and 10.9 assists through March 25. "It's been fun, passing the ball ahead to Blake, letting him push it and make plays. It's not always about the assist."
In other words, the six-foot Paul doesn't need to do more for the Clippers to win -- at least not more of the things people tend to notice. "It's tough sometimes to tell an All-Star or a superstar, 'Hey, change this in your game,' and for them to receive that and make the change," says backup center Ryan Hollins. "But Doc has a way of getting players to accept their role within his schemes."
Hollins isn't just talking about Paul. Although Griffin is having an MVP-caliber season, he still falls in love with the perimeter game at times, giving up an advantage for the offense. When he steps out to screen for a pick-and-roll on the wing, Griffin tends to drift, looking for a midrange jumper instead of cutting to the hoop. "Blake likes to pop a lot," Rivers says. "But he needs to roll more. When he rolls, everyone on defense has to react."
DURING SHOOTAROUND THE morning of the Warriors game, backup guard Willie Green was running through a set when Rivers stopped him. Green was acting as a decoy, setting a fake ball screen to lure a defender into a bad position. Every play has a tipping point, when the defense commits somewhere and new options spring open for the offense. But precise movements are necessary to force good defenses off-balance, and Green was about a foot short of precision.
"Doc stopped the practice and explained that for this play to work, I have to step up higher, really act like I'm coming to set a screen, even though I know I'm not," Green says. "He's not scared to ruffle feathers. And in this business, you have to. Guys are going to respect you more if you just tell them what you think. They might not agree with you, but there it is."
When Rivers took over the Celtics in 2004, he needed a whole season to convince Paul Pierce that the offense stalled when Pierce dominated possession of the ball. But Chris Paul is in his ninth season now, without much playoff success to show for it. Something has to give. Or, as Rivers puts it, "We're trying to get Chris to see, and I don't think it's anything we had to talk him into, that having the ball in his hands is never a bad thing, but when the ball touches everyone's hands, it's a great thing."
Paul finishes with 16 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds against the Warriors, but he isn't happy with his 5-for-15 shooting performance. After the win, he heads to his locker and peels off his game jersey, leaving on the compression shirt underneath. Then he quickly returns to the court for an impromptu shooting workout.
It's time to make some tweaks.