NEW YORK — Doc Rivers’ focus is on transforming the 76ers into NBA champions.
The new Sixers coach has a knack for focusing on what’s ahead and rarely looks back on accomplishments. But the 59-year-old Rivers reached the milestone that would put a smile on any coach’s face.
With Saturday’s 109-89 victory over New York Knicks, Rivers gained sole possession of 10th place on the NBA’s all-time wins list after sharing the spot with Bill Fitch for a few days.
Rivers gained his 945th victory — in his 22nd season as a head coach — with Saturday night’s win in Madison Square Garden. His first win came as the coach of the Orlando Magic, he won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics, and coached the Los Angeles Clippers for seven years before agreeing to take over the Sixers on Oct. 1.
“You know it’s a great feeling,” Rivers said. “You know I don’t count, and it’s not why I coach. But it’s an honor and it tells you I had a lot of success. It also says I had a lot of good players, and a lot of great coaches around me as well.”
Joel Embiid, Seth Curry, and Ben Simmons had big hands in helping Rivers get the victory.
Embiid scored 20 of his 27 points in the first half. The three-time All-Star center also had 10 rebounds. Curry, who is Rivers’ son-in-law, added 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting. The sharpshooter made 3 of 4 three-pointers. He had a little scare, banging his left shoulder into Reggie Bullock in the fourth quarter. Curry grabbed the shoulder during several trips up the court but remained in the game. He said after the game that the shoulder was a little sore.
Simmons finished with 15 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks. But his biggest accomplishment was his defensive effort on R.J. Barrett. The second-year guard, coming off a 26-point effort in the Knicks’ opener against Indiana, finished with 10 points on 2-for-15 shooting. He shot 11-for-15 against the Pacers.
But this night was about Rivers.
“I never really wanted to coach until late in my career. I had a coach named Pat Riley, who I fell in love with a at least the way he coached and his style,” Rivers said of his 2½ seasons as the Knicks’ point guard. “That kind of inspired me to want to be that.
“I never knew I would coach this long. I never thought in the wildest dreams I would coach longer than I played.”
Rivers’ playing career spanned 13 years with stops with the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Knicks, and San Antonio Spurs. But his love for what he’s doing has kept him in the business.
Looking forward, Rivers feels like he has a lot more to do.
That could be a good things for the Sixers (2-0), who began a season with consecutive victories for the second straight year. They opened up last season with five consecutive wins.
Saturday night’s focus was on shaping a new road identity.
Excluding games in the NBA bubble, the Sixers had a disappointing 10-24 record on the road last season. They lost 10 of their final 11 road games before the NBA shutdown in March due to the pandemic.
Rivers pointed out that winning is the only way to get a new road identity. So the focus is on sweeping this weekend’s road games on back-to-back nights. They’ll accomplish that with a victory Sunday night over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
On this night, the Knicks (0-2) weren’t expected to provide a lot of resistance.
New York was without Rivers’ son, Austin (groin); Omari Spellman (right knee); Obi Toppin ( strained right calf); and Immanuel Quickley (left hip). Toppin will be re-evaluated in seven to 10 days.
But the Knicks were competitive thanks to Julius Randle, who scored 18 of his 25 points in the first half. The Knicks held a 45-40 lead with 5 minutes, 55 seconds left in the half thanks to a 9-0 run. However, the Sixers responded with an 11-0 run to take a 60-55 cushion at the break.
The Sixers went on to outscore the Knicks, 26-14, in the third quarter to take a 86-69 lead.
Even if the Knicks were healthy, very few people — if any — expected them to beat the Sixers. That’s because one of the things Philly has mastered is beating New York. Saturday’s win marked their 13th straight victory over their Atlantic Division foe.
Now, Rivers is 98 victories shy of surpassing Rick Adelman (1,042) for ninth place all-time. That shouldn’t be a problem for Rivers, who inked a five-year deal with the Sixers. He will move ahead of Adelman and Larry Brown (1,098, eighth) over that time if he averages only 41 wins a year.
Don Nelson is No. 1 with 1,335 wins. Lenny Wilkens is second at 1,332. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who took 1,278 into Saturday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, is third.
Popovich and Rivers are only active coaches in the Top 10.
Rivers’ most successful coaching accomplishment was leading the Celtics to the 2008 NBA title. But during his first season of coaching, the Magic made 47 transactions and had only one player ranked among the league’s Top 200 players, according to Sports Illustrated. That team finished 41-41, and Rivers was named coach of the year.
That was a successful season and an enjoyable one for the coach. So was the Clippers making the playoffs two years ago without any All-Stars.
But what he takes most from coaching are the relationships he’s built.
“From all the coaches that I’ve had, including one here,” he said of Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who was one of his Celtics assistants. “To all the players who are now coaching, like Ty Lue and Sam Cassell, sitting next to me, James Posey and[ESPN analyst] Kendrick Perkins.
“I have a lot of great guys around me, you know players and coaches. I’m just a lucky man that I’ve had those opportunities.”