As Celtics enter playoffs, Rivers remembers unwatchable game

Jim Fenton

Even now, 20 years later, Doc Rivers is unable to sit down and watch a replay of the greatest game he participated in.

What happened on that spring Sunday afternoon on May 22, 1988, at the old Boston Garden remains too painful to revisit from beginning to end.

Rivers was a 26-year-old point guard for the Atlanta Hawks, who were playing the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the conference semifinal round.

It will always be remembered as the day when Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins took part in a wild fourth-quarter shootout with the Celtics just getting past the Hawks, 118-116.

For Rivers, now the head coach of the Celtics, it will be remembered as the day when his Hawks were unable to cash in on a golden opportunity to knock out Bird and Co.

"I don't have a lot of fond memories of that at all,'' Rivers said. "We don't talk about it. Me and Dominique and Spud (Webb), I think we've never had a conversation about that game.

"We were, for sure in our minds, going to win that game. We really were. We thought we were the better team, and we were not, obviously. I've never watched that game in total. That was a painful game.''

The Celtics and Hawks have not met in the playoffs since that masterpiece, but they will be reunited beginning Sunday night in the opening round of the postseason at the TD Banknorth Garden.

It will be difficult for the top-seeded Celtics and the eighth-seeded Hawks to match the thrilling finish their counterparts had 20 years ago when Boston escaped a 47-point onslaught by Wilkins to get to the conference finals for a fifth consecutive year.

This time, Rivers will be on the bench of the team with the best record in the NBA rather than feeding Wilkins, who made 19 of 33 shots, or Randy Wittman, who was 11-for-13 for 22 points.

The Celtics, who had lost Game 5 at home and fought off elimination in Game 6 on the road, would have been in trouble had Bird not scored 20 of his 34 points in the final quarter of the clincher.

"Honestly, being a part of it, I didn't know it was special at the time,'' Rivers said. "It was such a great game. It was almost a perfect game.''

While Bird and Wilkins got all of the attention for their splendid offensive displays, Wittman and Kevin McHale (33 points) and a guy named Rivers (18 assists and 16 points before fouling out) were also sensational.

Rivers didn't know how good of a game he had that afternoon until last year, when his boss with the Celtics, Danny Ainge, showed him an old box score of Game 7. Ainge had 13 points and 10 assists for Boston that day.

"Danny brought in the stat sheet, and up until that moment, I always felt I personally had an awful game,'' said Rivers, who kept feeding a sizzling Wilkins. "Danny showed me the stat sheet and I had 18 (assists) and 16 (points), and I was blown away by that.

"When you lose, you think everything negative. All I could remember was DJ (Dennis Johnson) stealing the ball from me right before halftime, and I thought that was a big play in the series, in that game.''

Ainge and Rivers were involved in a controversial play that went the Celtics' way. After an Ainge steal, Rivers came from behind and blocked his shot near the basket, only to have it called goaltending.

"Yeah, Danny told me now it wasn't, but that doesn't matter,'' Rivers said. "I didn't think it was a goaltend then. He (stole) a pass. I was on the other side of the court. Danny laughs and says, 'No way you could get there', but I had a great angle and they called a goaltend.''

The Bird-Wilkins duel was something to watch unfold, but Rivers said that he couldn't sense how special it was since he was so involved in the game.

"I was frustrated with the Bird part of it,'' he said. "The Dominique part, you just took for granted. Dominique was so great, it's a shame people don't understand how great of an offensive player that he was.

"The Bird part, I was having a mounting frustration with. Back then, teams didn't double a lot. That was before the doubling generation. I tell our guys this all the time. You know what an adjustment was in my era? Sub. Somebody else guard the guy. That was basically it.

"We decided too late in the game, and we couldn't get there in time. Bird was taking the shots literally before we could get to the double team. I remember that 3-pointer in the corner in front of our bench. That was the coffin shot.''

Rivers probably sees some of the shots made down the stretch over and over in his mind, but he won't rehash it on a television screen.

The memories are too nightmarish for Rivers, so he avoids the replays whenever they pop up.

"The sad thing is, NBA TV plays those games, and the kids watch it and they want you to come in and watch it,'' Rivers said. "So I've watched bits and pieces of Game 7, but that's it.

"It's funny. I was working for ABC (late in the 2003-04 season) and we were in Houston doing a Houston-Minnesota game. Randy Wittman was an assistant coach with the Timberwolves, and we went with Kevin McHale to watch the college tournament one night on television.

"We go, and on the TV to the right of us is that freaking Game 7. It's me and Kevin and Randy, and Kevin, of course, is having a ball. He's talking more crap. I didn't pay any attention to the game, but it was pretty funny.''

The Enterprise