In defeat, Austin Rivers wins more than a moment can measure

When Austin Rivers came to the Los Angeles Clippers, it was impossible to ignore — whether founded or not — the idea that coach and general manager Doc Rivers was trying to advance his son’s career.

The inclination to think that favoritism was at the root of Doc’s decision was understandable. Moreover, Doc certainly does play favorites; how else to explain the acquisition and then continued usage of Paul Pierce in the just-concluded series against the Portland Trail Blazers?

Yet, for the grains of truth which might have existed in the “favoritism” charge, it never quite fit — not fully, anyway — for a simple reason: The relationship between the father and the son was a difficult one then, and it remains difficult now.

Austin Rivers might have “Dad” in the locker room and the huddle, but he doesn’t know Doc as his father. He knows him as his basketball coach, more than as a life coach. Therefore, Rivers is and has been fundamentally alone, a very young man trying to make his way in a cutthroat business.

Last year, his unlikely bursts of brilliance in the playoffs were hard to take too seriously, because they were immediately followed by the all-too-predictable regression to the mean. The Clippers’ collapse against the Houston Rockets — after forging a 3-1 series lead — is the central and supreme disappointment of the Doc Rivers era in Los Angeles, and Austin Rivers wasn’t yet equipped with enough of the resources needed to prevent that trainwreck from running its course.

Austin Rivers was placed into various boxes before this season and these playoffs: a wait-and-see proposition, a ballhog with no conscience, a bright talent who needed to be harnessed, a bench player who had to make the most of his minutes behind the Clippers’ superstars.

Throughout all those categorizations, however, Rivers was viewed in a mixture of ways. He sometimes made basketball fans laugh, given the fluctuations which marked his style of play (and its attendant results). He sometimes caused jaws to drop; he could certainly unfurl some aesthetically dazzling plays from time to time. he constantly represented a source of bafflement, because he gave us a glimpse of his ceiling yet fell to a relatively lower floor compared to a lot of other professionals. That the Clippers — the soap-operatic, wear-their-emotions-on-their-sleeves Clippers — represented the home for Austin Rivers’s meandering NBA career did not push public perceptions in a positive direction. Had Austin Rivers become a San Antonio Spur or a Boston Celtic (with Brad Stevens, not Doc, of course), many in and around the NBA would likely regard him in a substantially different way.

That’s not the path he took, however… and it’s because his coach (not necessarily his father) wanted him in Los Angeles.

How remarkable — and poignant — it is, then, that on a night when Doc Rivers suffered yet another stinging end to an NBA season in L.A., without any real accomplishments to show for another long journey in Southern California, his son — the one who views his biological father as nothing more than a basketball voice — finally found himself in a profound sense.

How utterly captivating it was to see Austin Rivers become the Los Angeles Clippers — everything which has marred the franchise in its sad and barren existence — and then transform both himself and the way the 2016 Clippers will be remembered.

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In the picture above, Austin Rivers — injured in the first quarter — took on the entire history of the Clipper franchise.

“Blood-drenched” is as good a term as any to describe the humiliating life of the Clippers, born in Buffalo as the Braves in 1970. Over 45 years later, the Braves-turned-Clippers — from the cold Northeast to San Diego to L.A. — have never played in a conference finals series. Last year should have been their moment, and 2014 could have been their moment, but they gacked away Game 5 of the West semis against Oklahoma City.

Austin Rivers’s face took on all the wounds and slights and cruel twists of fortune which have bedeviled the Clippers for generations. With CP3 and Blake Griffin out, and with J.J. Redick hobbling around the court, Rivers’ 11 stitches near his eye suggested that the Clippers would have nothing left to offer (other than Jamal Crawford’s 32 points) against a Portland team intent on making a quick kill at home in Game 6.

Yet, with those 11 stitches, Rivers became, if not the most potent Clipper on the court, the most inspiring one. He scored 21 points, but that was possibly the least impressive thing he did on Friday. He grabbed 6 rebounds, throwing himself into the fray and embracing the tumult of full-tilt competition. He handed out 8 assists and lent structure to a Clipper offense which didn’t completely collapse in CP3’s absence. Most of all, Rivers didn’t commit a single turnover in 32 minutes. He became the ideal player and teammate — an offensive threat, but within a context of structure. He wasn’t the wild-flying individualist he used to be.

In many ways, Austin Rivers found self-actualization as a basketball player in this game on this stage, with 11 stitches sewn into his face.

The self-actualization doesn’t flow from the stats, however, or from the clean way Austin Rivers played on this bloody Friday night. Austin Rivers’s growth as a player  — relative to the strict measurement of stats and categories — was real on Friday, but what we’ll all remember is that he grew as a man, that he became what he became in spite of an injury and a team-based situation which would make many mortals sink into the quiet resignation which says, “It’s just not my night, and it’s just not our team’s season.”

Austin Rivers hears the voice of his biological father in every Clipper huddle, but for so long, Rivers has needed to heed the only voice any of us can truly respond to: the one within.

Forget about the way Austin Rivers played basketball on Friday, the way his coach taught him to play and hoped he would play. The son whose father is nothing other than a distant basketball instructor managed to carry himself in a different way in Game 6 against Portland. Austin Rivers and the Clippers didn’t win Game 6. They didn’t win this series. They didn’t achieve the measurable growth which numbers and stats can quantify.

Yet, Austin Rivers (centrally) and the Clippers (peripherally) did win something which can’t be measured. Laughed at in the past, and frequently a source of bafflement, a young man and his ballclub gained that most precious of gifts in a typically unforgiving business:

Austin Rivers — the face of the Los Angeles Clippers, at least at the end of the 2016 season — won the respect of the entire NBA.

It’s not a conference finals berth or a chance to play for a championship, but it’s significant, and no one who follows professional basketball is going to look at Austin Rivers the same way again.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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