- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Doc Rivers set the final sequence into motion, then stood as a helpless observer for maybe the seven most excruciating seconds of his career.
It was June 2, 1993, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Incensed by some of the New York tabloid headlines, Michael Jordan had just produced a 54-point performance a game earlier as the Chicago Bulls evened their series with the Knicks as the series shifted back to Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks hadn't lost since Jan. 28, a stretch of 27 games.
Down a point, Rivers put the ball in John Starks' hands on the right wing, then buried himself in the opposite corner. Starks' pick-and-roll with Patrick Ewing broke down, and the ball eventually ended up in the hands of Charles Smith as Rivers drifted toward the top of the key.
Four times Smith went up with a chance to move the Knicks a step closer to the NBA Finals. And four times he was thwarted. He was a split second too slow on the first attempt, allowing Horace Grant to deny him. Scottie Pippen provided the key block soon after, and the Bulls went the other way for a layup and a 97-94 triumph.
Rivers stood at midcourt and watched as Jordan leaped and pumped his fist wildly as the Bulls spilled off their bench in celebration. The top-seeded Knicks were eliminated two nights later in Chicago, and the Bulls went on to win their third consecutive world title.
Nearly two decades later, Rivers wishes he had a more endearing memory of Madison Square Garden, but admits that Game 5 remains the most vivid.
"I think it's tough for any player that never won it -- you really don't have a great memory," Rivers said. "I know that sounds bad in some ways, but it's very true. I really don't [have one positive moment at MSG]. I mean, I remember all the negative. I remember Game 5 against Chicago. That's not my greatest memory, but that's the memory I have."
It doesn't stop Rivers from openly gushing about MSG. He loves the arena and especially the history. He's downright excited for the frenzied atmosphere that surely awaits the first playoff game in that building in seven years when the Celtics meet the Knicks in Game 3 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on Friday night.
"It's special to me because I played there. It's special to every single player because it's the only arena left," said Rivers. "There's no other arena in the NBA that has memories. All the others have been blown up and they've put up new ones.
"This is the one where Frazier-Ali happened. Not really, but this is the arena, the same land, at least. All this stuff that's happened, players know that. I have kids who, one of their dreams was to play in Madison Square Garden. They're not from New York. It's just the only building left. It used to be the [Los Angeles] Forum, the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden. Now, it's just Madison Square Garden."
So, the Celtics are ready for MSG. Light up the marquee. Dust off the purple seats. Make sure Spike Lee is barking early and often. The Knicks haven't won a playoff game here since April 22, 2003, exactly a decade from Game 3. And the Celtics would like to extend that drought.
"Every player wants to play in Madison Square Garden," said Glen Davis, who has never shied from a big stage.
"I like the rims there. They've got good rims. It feels like you're shooting the ball real light when you play, but it is what it is. You've just got to play the game. Madison Square Garden is where everybody wants to play, and you just get up for those types of games."
Davis isn't the only one who likes MSG. Celtics captain Paul Pierce has already done two home run trots there this season, most notably after his game winner over Amare Stoudemire in the team's first meeting of the regular season there. After rallying from a double-digit hole to win at MSG again last month, Boston players took great pleasure in watching the arena empty out in the final moments.
Rivers admitted that his players typically thrive in a hostile environment, so he's hoping this trip will bring out the best in his troops. Rajon Rondo, for one, isn't allowing the moment to get bigger than him.
"I mean, hopefully a lot of cheers," Rondo quipped when asked what to expect at MSG. "Boston and New York are pretty close, so hopefully they give our Boston fans some tickets up there and we get a lot of supporters."
That's unlikely to happen. Just as it's unlikely that any amount of success at MSG will erase the bad memories that first leap to mind for Rivers when he thinks about the arena.
But a solid showing this weekend for the Celtics could send them into the next round with some much-needed momentum. And if the Celtics were to go on to win a world title, Rivers would surely remember MSG a bit more fondly as a steppingstone to that ultimate prize.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
8hChris Broussard and Brian Windhorst