Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers Seek a Hollywood Ending Few Saw Coming

Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers promised not to do any coaching at All-Star Weekend.

So it fits that each sideline chief stopped the wisecracks and buoyancy and called exasperated timeouts during Sunday's closing event, even if they were also cycling in other players.

Rivers struck first after the Eastern Conference allowed a lay-up parade in the span of three second-quarter possessions. Popovich then convened a less-than-Disney huddle minutes later when Kevin Durant delivered some lackadaisical transition defense that led to a dunk.

Even in an exhibition match, these two master tacticians could not hold back the frustration that emanates when the opponent scores at will. The Western Conference edged the East 148-143, and both coaches will take solace in the return of meaningful contests.

If the Celtics or Spurs surrender that many regulation points in the next few months, the less-than-Disney huddle speak will resemble a script from a Martin Scorsese flick.

Rivers and Popovich can tolerate a few days of showboating dunked and drowned in vain glory because they know the opportunity to chaperone the world's best talent in a mid-season classic is an honor many at their level will never sniff.

Popovich would have welcomed a vacation from professional basketball.

A vineyard venture and a glass of wine appeals more in mid-February than LeBron James and Blake Griffin flushing lob passes. A low-key getaway beats the pomp and circumstance of the All-Star festivities.

Rivers seems to enjoy his ceremonial duty more and can find ways to lob softball jabs at Boston's rivals, even in a practice session.

During one sequence Saturday morning, he asked his four Celtics selections to take the court with Chris Bosh to execute a set from the Heat's playbook. "Did we run it right?" Rivers asked. Bosh nodded.

Yet, would he gripe if the league asked him to stay home while someone else oversaw the East in a slam-it-down, jack-it-up showcase?

They played down the importance of the canonization and vowed to luxuriate in a frou-frou ride as much as possible.They avoided interviews and center stage.

So it fits that both men succumbed to the typical competitive juices in the building that houses the team and coach they yearn to dethrone. Never before had Phil Jackson's absence at Staples Center made as much sense.

Kobe Bryant ran away with All-Star MVP honors. His 37-point onslaught smoked LeBron James' triple-double, just the second in the game's 60-year history. It did not matter that Oklahoma City's star scored 12 of his 34 points in a heavy-lifting crunch time role.

The night and the trophy belonged to the hometown hero.

He owned the stage and the stat sheet, also hauling down 14 rebounds. This was Bryant's chance to tie Bob Pettit for the most exhibition MVPs ever. His fourth such triumph was his before tipoff, provided the West could fend off the East.

Popovich said this of Bryant afterward: "He's a helluva player."

Rivers' nod in Bryant's direction after the buzzer said the same.

Yet, the two coaches would have offered the same praise five weeks ago, five months ago and five years ago. Nothing changed Sunday night.

They did not see anything they did not already know was within an all-time great. Watching him pour in 37 points did not alter their perception of how difficult it will prove to unseat the champs.

Maybe, though, all of those analysts who booked a Lakers-Heat title showdown in July now think more of Popovich and Rivers after seeing them, not Jackson and Erik Spoelstra, emerge from that dense cloud of smoke and vanity.

Sheer talent does not always reign supreme. The Spurs and the Celtics sporting the NBA's top two marks illustrates that.

Boston had aged and lost a heartbreaking Game Seven in L.A. The devastation figured to shatter any chance at a title-caliber recovery, Danny Ainge would struggle to afford Ray Allen, and a star-studded union would meet its painful demise.

The Heat promised a younger, more athletic show wrought with rockstar glamour and record-breaking alley oop run outs.

The wannabe dynasty that Pat Riley constructed would challenge the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, Jeff Van Gundy said. The Heat would abuse and embarrass its competition.

Rivers and Ainge did not lose faith come July 1 when free agency threatened to eliminate the Celtics for good.

The coach still saw that championship spark in his core.

The GM did not deal away the intelligence or the prodigious basketball savvy that allowed him to rescue Boston from its crevasse and raise a 17th banner.

Just as King James informed a national television audience he was taking his talents to South Beach, Ainge was nearing a reboot of the Eastern Conference kings.

He re-signed Allen, inked Paul Pierce to an extension, brought back Nate Robinson, and tendered contracts to draft picks Luke Harangody and Semih Erden. Ainge scooped up Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal when other executives wondered about the wisdom of hiring those two for a mercenary mission.

The Celtics brief affair with Stephon Marbury did not culminate in the apocalypse. Rasheed Wallace's post play defined his final minutes in a Boston uniform more than his rage.

All of these would-be clashing personalities and egos coalesced in time for a Larry O' Brien trophy binge, and it all goes back to Rivers. How many other coaches could manage a locker room with four future Hall of Famers and a point guard brash and cocky enough to run an offense with that mix of talent?

Rajon Rondo can tell Shaq, "No, I'm not passing you the ball," without fearing for his employment. Rondo can bark at Kevin Garnett and Pierce whenever their mistakes merit a reprimand, and they can do the same for a floor general whose vision recalls Bob Cousy.

The Celtics' supercilious cast just wins, baby, with no personal agendas, because Rivers commands the respect necessary to make it all happen.

They trust his instincts and his drive. Garnett, who considers the coach a father figure, has even suggested he would call it quits if Rivers departed Boston this summer.

The old guys and Rondo hit the stretch-run in a familiar place, the East's zenith, with all eyes on retaking the ultimate prize. Allen, described by some as "washed up" last summer, has put together the most efficient season of his career. He obliterated Reggie Miller's thee-point record two weeks ago.

The Spurs endured a second-round sweep at the hands of their former whipping boys, the Steve Nash-Amar'e Stoudemire Phoenix Suns.

R.C. Buford, like Ainge, faced difficult decisions. With precious little cap space and the Lakers gloating and prancing down Figueroa, he did what has defined his tenure as San Antonio's GM.

He re-signed Richard Jefferson when most thought the move approached insanity. He dug up a 26-year-old sharpshooter from an Italian league, inked heralded 6'11" pick Tiago Splitter, returned Matt Bonner and kept Tony Parker off the free agent market.

Popovich, then, proceeded to rip his old formula to shreds in favor of an uptempo attack that would make Parker and Manu Ginobili centerpieces and reduce Tim Duncan to a frequent support role. A coach once allergic to rookies now entrusts Gary Neal in fourth quarters. Popovich still has designs on a spot for Splitter.

He may have trashed the paper, but he kept his battle-tested, half-court formula in his head.

His Spurs may run more now, but he still demands that they execute the same grimy defense as before. He still plans to feature Duncan in the postseason, just as he has since 1997.

So it fits that Rivers and Popovich appear headed for a Finals collision course. Understand this: no one with a functioning medulla oblongata, common sense and Internet access underestimates Bryant or Jackson.

Sunday was not a reminder, just as the Lakers' Wednesday loss to the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers was not a dubious finale. What too many L.A. supporters perceive as a Jackson diss, is in fact, a resounding endorsement of Popovich and Rivers.

Jerry Sloan and Rick Adelman, a pair of coaching icons, could not stand up to Jackson. Pat Riley failed in his lone meeting. Rivers and Popovich differ because, no matter the ring discrepancy, they can address the Lakers' celebrity sideline chief at eye level.

The list of coaches who can boast victories against Jackson's true contenders is short.

No one toppled the Bulls when Michael Jordan played a full season in Chicago. Popovich, Rivers and Larry Brown are the only ones to send him packing in the previous decade.

Analysts should not write off Bryant and his two-time defending champions. Instead, they should realize that a pair of coaches cut from the same cloth are just that good.

All the talk about the milestones the Heat and Lakers would smash was premature and gelastic. If GMs, sportswriters and fans gleaned any lessons from Sunday's All-Star game, they should not concern Bryant.

When the games matter most, Ginobili, Parker, Duncan, Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Rondo will want to win as much as anybody in purple and gold.

The Heat's star trio will not seize the East on talent alone.

Dwight Howard's Magic, Derrick Rose's Bulls and Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks present lethal challenges for the Spurs and Celtics. Yet, even they could not wrestle away the hype from the Heat and Lakers.

Now, many worry that L.A. is broken beyond repair and Miami too flawed to wear the crown, when they should have seen Boston and San Antonio coming.

So it fits that Rivers and Popovich each took their awkward turns during the elaborate introductions, the discomfort and unease boiling over in their facial expressions. Yet, these two men found a way to belong as some of the world's finest athletes turned the Staples Center floor into YouTube central.

Go ahead and brand the 60th All-Star Game as Bryant's response to the Lakers' critics.

Just remember July.

Then, two coaches were handed conference championships by many NBA followers before anyone played any contests. Jackson and the Spoelstra-Riley duo might get there, but neither of them graced the sidelines Sunday night.

How did Rivers and Popovich lead the Celtics and Spurs to February's Mt. Everest? As anyone who dismissed them should know by now, they also hate to lose.

So it fits that both promised not to coach their All-Stars and did it anyway.

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