MILWAUKEE (AP) — Doc Rivers was coaching the first NBA game that Giannis Antetokounmpo remembers seeing on television.
“We had this old TV,” Antetokounmpo recalled Saturday night. “I had to hit it on the side.”
Antetokounmpo was a teenager at the time watching Rivers coach the Boston Celtics' 2008 NBA Finals victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Thirteen years later, Antetokounpmo would have his own NBA title after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in half a century.
Now the two of them are trying to win another championship together. Rivers held his introductory press conference Saturday as the Bucks' coach after being hired to replace Adrian Griffin, who was fired after only 43 games.
“I'm excited,” Antetokounmpo said. “He's a legend in this league.”
Rivers is equally thrilled as he prepares to make his Bucks debut on Monday night when Milwaukee opens a five-game trip against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.
Coaching in Milwaukee represents a homecoming of sorts for Rivers, a former Marquette guard who says he got much of his basketball knowledge from former Golden Eagle coaches Al McGuire, Hank Raymonds and Rick Majerus. Rivers' No. 31 Marquette jersey hangs from the rafters of Fiserv Forum, the home arena of the Bucks and Marquette.
“It’s just really cool being in an arena, coaching in an arena and your jersey’s hanging above you,” said Rivers, who was at Marquette from 1980-83 before playing 13 seasons in the NBA. “I can turn to the players and say: ‘Guys, I swear to God, I played basketball. Just look up. I swear that’s me.’ It’s really cool.”
Shortly after his news conference, Rivers received a standing ovation and gave a brief pep talk to the crowd as he was introduced during a first-half timeout in Marquette's 75-57 victory over Seton Hall.
Rivers faces quite a challenge. The Bucks were 30-13 when Griffin was fired, a testament to the franchise’s sense of urgency while it has Antetokounmpo and seven-time all-NBA guard Damian Lillard on its roster. The Bucks went 2-1 over the last four days under interim head coach Joe Prunty.
After the Philadelphia 76ers fired him last year following a third straight second-round playoff exit, Rivers began this season working as an ESPN analyst. This opportunity brought him back for a 25th season as an NBA head coach.
“I wasn't going to just take a job,” Rivers said. “I've been contacted several times this season, and I wouldn't even take the call. I was dead serious. If the right opportunity opened, I would listen. If not, I was fine.”
Rivers said his staff will include former Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings head coach Dave Joerger as well as Rex Kalamian, who worked alongside him with the Los Angeles Clippers.
“Our language and communication defensively, we have to get that right,” Rivers said. “Right now, you can feel it. Some this way, some this way. We’ve gotta get on the same page. We’ve got to do things differently, too, than the past. Jrue and Dame are different players. We have to change some things, for sure.”
Rivers' head coaching experience represents a sharp contrast from his predecessor. Griffin had been an NBA assistant for 16 years but never a head coach until the Bucks hired him last summer.
Rivers owns a 1,097-763 regular-season record and 111-104 playoff mark with the Orlando Magic (1999-2004), Boston Celtics (2004-13), Clippers (2013-20) and 76ers (2020-23). His first victory with the Bucks will tie Larry Brown for the eighth-most career coaching wins in NBA history.
“He's a strong voice," Lillard said. "He's going to demand more from our team. He's not going to be afraid to challenge myself. He's not going to (be afraid) to challenge Giannis. He's not going to be afraid to challenge Brook (Lopez) and Khris (Middleton) and all the way down the line. I think when you're dealing with a team full of vets and as talented as we are, I think that's something that you need if you want to reach the level we want to reach. And I think he's the perfect person for it.”
Rivers won a title with the Celtics in 2008 and lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers two years later, but he never got beyond the second round of the playoffs with the Clippers and 76ers.
Milwaukee’s had its own postseason issues.
The Bucks won their first title in half a century in 2021 but haven’t advanced beyond the second round since. They posted the NBA’s top regular-season record in 2019, 2020 and 2023 but failed to make it beyond the conference finals in any of those years.
Rivers and the Bucks are hoping that joining forces can help them both end their recent playoff frustrations. Rivers embraced Milwaukee's sky-high expectations while talking to the media and to his new team.
“I think the most important thing he emphasized is to come together as a team,” Antetokounmpo said. “The moment we're together as a team, the faster we can get to where we want to get to.”
Rivers believes he can help the Bucks get there.
“Winning it all, it's like having a blood transfusion with everybody in the organization, and once you get that in you, you want another one, ” Rivers said. "And that's my pursuit. I don't know if there’s anything to prove there. It's just something that I want to do. Listen, Giannis, that's what he wants to do. Khris Middleton and Lopez — just because they’ve won one doesn’t mean they don’t want to win another. And Dame wants to win one.
“Yeah, I've got a hungry group.”
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