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Bucks’ Doc Rivers lured back to coaching by chance to compete for NBA title

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Doc Rivers and the Milwaukee Bucks each have endured plenty of recent playoff disappointment.

Now they’re joining forces as the Bucks attempt to meet sky-high expectations by winning their second title in four years. Rivers will make his debut Monday when Milwaukee opens a five-game road trip against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets.

Rivers held his introductory news conference as Milwaukee’s coach on Saturday, four days after the Bucks fired Adrian Griffin just 43 games into his tenure. The Bucks were 30-13 at the time of Griffin’s dismissal, a testament to this franchise’s sense of urgency to win big while it has two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and seven-time all-NBA guard Damian Lillard on its roster.

After the Philadelphia 76ers fired him in the wake of a third straight second-round playoff exit last year, Rivers began this season working as an ESPN analyst. The opportunity to lead the Bucks brought him back to coaching.

“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.”

Joe Prunty will work a third and final game as interim head coach Saturday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.

The immediate task for Rivers is helping the Bucks improve their consistency and upgrade a defense that has taken a major step backward without Jrue Holiday, who was included in the offseason trade that brought them Lillard.

Rivers will coach in an arena where his No. 31 Marquette jersey hangs from the rafters. He starred at Marquette from 1980-83 and played 13 seasons in the NBA before beginning a head coaching career that has lasted nearly a quarter-century.

“Being back here is a dream,” Rivers said.

His head coaching experience represents a sharp contrast from his predecessor. Griffin had been an NBA assistant for 16 years but had never worked as a head coach until the Bucks hired him last summer.

Rivers owns a 1,097-763 regular-season record and 111-104 playoff mark in 24 seasons with the Orlando Magic (1999-2004), Boston Celtics (2004-13), LA 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 was named one of the 15 greatest coaches in league history in 2022 by a panel of 43 current and former NBA coaches in collaboration with the National Basketball Coaches Association.

It’s the first time he’s taken over a team midway through a season.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Rivers said. “It’s a challenge that I’m running towards. We’ve got to get organized quickly. Can’t try to do too much too soon. We’re in the middle of a season, so we’ve got to try to keep our rhythm. There are changes that we have to make, there’s no doubt about that.”

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. He brought the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2012.

But he never got beyond the second round of the playoffs with the Clippers and 76ers. He’s encountered plenty of criticism for blown series leads over the course of his career.

The Bucks still believe he has what it takes to lead them to another title.

“The interesting thing to me is [that] I know a bunch of talking heads will talk about some of the negative things because that’s what social media is, but you talk about the success that he’s had and the ability he’s had to get teams into positions to win, whether they’ve closed or not,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said Friday night after the hire was announced. “I look at our team and I look at the situation he’s coming into, we get to those situations, I think we’ve got a good chance to close.”

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.

Mike Budenholzer, who coached the Bucks to the 2021 title, was fired last year after the top-seeded Bucks’ shocking 4-1 first-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat.

“It’s going to be fun just to get coached by someone who has something to prove as well,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said Friday. “Being on a team with other guys who, obviously — we all have something to prove. Not saying we failed over the last couple of years, but we didn’t achieve what was sought out to be the goal.”

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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