- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers operates under the theory that you don't want to get into a playoff series in which the other team has the best player on the floor. Considering he's touted the New York Knicks tandem of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire as among the NBA's elite, Rivers concedes that New York is not the ideal first-round draw (if such a thing exists).
Rivers wouldn't bite when asked if the Knicks are a "dangerous" team, dismissing the suggestion by saying that he wouldn't get involved in wordplay and noting that some might dub his own team "dangerous." But Rivers knows from experience just how threatening an opponent with elite scorers can be.
"I almost won a series in Orlando with one guy named Tracy McGrady," Rivers said.
He's referring to the 2002-03 season when McGrady, who collected the NBA scoring title while averaging 32.1 points per game and guided the Orlando Magic to 42 wins and the eight seed in the Eastern Conference, saved some of his finest offensive outbursts for the postseason.
In Game 1 of an opening-round series against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons, McGrady erupted for 43 points on 15-of-28 shooting, almost single-handedly carrying Orlando to a 99-94 road triumph on the road.
McGrady dropped 46 points in a losing effort the next night, but two more big efforts in Games 3 and 4 staked upstart Orlando to a 3-1 series lead. Detroit rallied back with three straight wins to escape with the series.
"For five games, [McGrady] was the best player in the world," Rivers said. "He wasn't for [Games] 6 or 7, but for those first five, he was amazing. You look at the rosters and we had no chance in that series. All of a sudden, we're up. When you have great players, especially that can score, it makes it a tough series."
Anthony (third in the league at 25.6 points per game) and Stoudemire (fifth, 25.4 ppg) were among the league's top scorers this season. If the Knicks hope to have any Magic-like magic against Boston, they'll need their superstars to win it for them.
"Usually it comes down to making big plays -- whether defensively, offensively -- it's either a blocked shot or a big rebound, or your guys step up or a role player playing better then normal," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Hopefully we have guys, and I think we do have guys that will make big plays."
D'Antoni is the first to admit that the onus on the Knicks is to play defense, something its junior varsity squad failed to do Wednesday night as Boston's B-team emerged with a 112-102 triumph at TD Garden in both sides' regular-season finale.
The sixth-seeded Knicks and the third-seeded Celtics open a best-of-seven playoff series back in Boston on Sunday night. Should Rivers and Co. be scared?
"Scared? I don't know if anything scares me about anybody," Rivers said. "[The Knicks] have three very, very, very good players."
They also have three very, very, very experienced players. And that's one of the myths Rivers is seeking to debunk before the series begins. While the Knicks haven't been to the playoffs in seven years and haven't been beyond the first round since 2000, they have plenty of playoff experience, highlighted by Anthony (seven postseason appearances), Stoudemire (five) and Chauncey Billups (10).
Billups was a member of that Detroit Pistons team that fended off McGrady and the Magic in 2002. He likes New York's potential.
"I think that we are probably, most certainly, the most dangerous first-round team in the NBA," Billups said earlier this week. "When I say that, it's because we are fresh and we are new and we are dangerous. We've got a lot of weapons, we can move the scoreboard, I think our defense is a lot better. We're going to be a tough out."
Billups said he understands the Celtics' recent struggles because he's been a part of veteran clubs with championship aspirations that often lose their motivation toward the end of the season.
Which is why this series might be less about how "dangerous" the Knicks are and more about how prepared the Celtics are to snap out of their late-season slumber.
"I think this is what our guys have been playing for all year," Rivers said, refrencing last season's near-miss against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. "When you lose a Game 7, it sticks with you. That's very difficult to get back through the regular season because the whole season you're thinking about, 'Gosh, we've got to go through 82 of these just to have a chance go get back to where we were at last year.' Now all that part is gone.
"Now we can start trying to get back to -- and finish -- the job."
After all, the most dangerous teams in the playoffs often are the squads that simply want it more.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. NBA Insider Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com contributed to this report.