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Celtics notebook

Painful slice of experience

Rivers knows perils in ‘meaningless’ games

With the Bulls’ Taj Gibson (right) lurking around, Celtic captain Paul Pierce stretches to keep the ball out of harm’s during a second-half drive. With the Bulls’ Taj Gibson (right) lurking around, Celtic captain Paul Pierce stretches to keep the ball out of harm’s during a second-half drive. (John Gress/Reuters)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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CHICAGO — Every so often, the scar that runs down Doc Rivers’s right thumb reminds him about the importance of games at the end of the season.

He got the wound on the last day of the 1992-93 season, in a game that was more or less meaningless aside from the fact that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference — his Knicks and Michael Jordan’s Bulls — were playing on national TV.

The Knicks had wrapped up home-court advantage in the playoffs and were sitting on 59 wins. It wasn’t getting to 60 as much as league pressure that led coach Pat Riley to play his regular rotation.

“They basically threatened that back then you had to play,’’ Rivers said. “Everybody had to play. Jordan had to play in the game that was completely meaningless.’’

They obliged, reluctantly. Patrick Ewing played 40 minutes, and the Knicks won a battle, 89-84, but the price was John Starks dislocating his left middle finger and Rivers tearing a ligament in his thumb.

“I remember Riley saying, ‘That will never, ever happen again,’ ’’ said Rivers.

To an extent, the Celtics coach has adopted that stance. His team still had something to play for entering last night’s game against the Bulls, but it didn’t make him any less cautious.

“You’ve got to play somebody,’’ Rivers said, “but that will always have an affect on me. If we had everything clinched, after what I went through and other guys on our team getting injured, there’s no way I would play guys. I wouldn’t take the chance.’’

The Celtics lost their chance at the third seed with last night’s 101-93 loss to the Bulls and will be in the fourth spot.

Rivers rested Kevin Garnett Saturday against the Bucks and monitored him closely last night. With injuries knocking out star players on a handful of playoff teams, Rivers wants to be cautious.

He also has his personal experience to draw from. The Knicks won that season-ending game against Chicago, but when the teams met again in the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls won, 4-2.

“It’s my memory,’’ Rivers said. “Every time I think about playing guys, I just look down.’’

Judgment days
As he vented earlier in the week, Celtics president Danny Ainge said his team’s 50 wins fell short of the expectations they had set at the start of the season.

Rivers agreed with Ainge to an extent, but he said that while his team could have won more games in the regular season, it will be judged by the playoffs.

“I’ll let Danny speak for Danny,’’ Rivers said. “I’m not getting into it. Listen — and I’ve said this only about 50 times now — it’s for you guys to judge our team. And if you all want to make opinions about it, go ahead.

“Yeah, if we were healthy all year, there’s no doubt 50 wins were not good enough. Even not healthy, we should have won more games. Having said that, what do you want me to do? Worry about that or get ready for tonight, tomorrow night, and the playoffs?

“I’ll let you guys keep saying whatever we didn’t do and all that stuff. This is what I know: If we win in the playoffs, you won’t be talking about that. If we lose in the playoffs, you’ll be talking about it.’’

The Celtics wrapped up their third straight 50-win season for the first time since the Bird Era, despite dealing with injuries throughout the year.

Before the season, Rasheed Wallace said he thought this team could challenge the 72 wins the Bulls posted in the 1995-96 season.

“I don’t think about it a second,’’ Rivers said. “I don’t worry about it. If we had won 60 games, I wouldn’t have even worried about that, either.

“That’s my point. As a coach, your job is to worry about the future. The past is the past and there’s nothing you can do about it.’’

They can feel it
The anticipation for the playoffs has been building for at least two weeks. Rivers said he could sense it as he was leaving TD Garden after the Celtics beat the Cavaliers April 4.

“I was walking back to my car and all the Cavs guys were there and that’s all they were talking about,’’ Rivers said. “A little bit of our game and then playoffs. I think everyone sees the end and everyone’s looking forward to it starting.’’

Kendrick Perkins said players have started changing their routines with the playoffs nearing.

“It gets interesting around this time,’’ Perkins said. “Guys go to the gym two, three times a day, getting extra work in. It’s starting to show. I just feel like we’ve got a veteran team, so we’ve got to know how to go out and handle our business.’’

Finding the range
Prepping himself for the types of defenses he will likely see in the playoffs, Paul Pierce made a conscious effort to work on his mid-range game against Milwaukee. Six of his 10 makes were in the 13- to 18-foot range; 11 of his 17 shots overall were from mid-range.

“I know in the playoffs, those are shots that I’m going to be able to get,’’ Pierce said. “A lot of teams are cutting off a lot of the drives and keeping me off the free throw line. I think that’s a part of the game that I can be more dominant in, and that’s what I want to do.’’

New additions
The Celtics signed former UMass forward Tony Gaffney and point guard Oliver Lafayette to nonguaranteed contracts, largely for summer league purposes. Boston will field a team in the Orlando Summer League. “We just like the upside of these two kids,’’ said Ainge. “We think they’re hard-working players that play with intensity and have the skills that complement our team. Gaffney went undrafted last June and spent time with the Lakers’ summer league team and in training camp before playing in Israel. He was recently cleared to play after sustaining a stress fracture in his foot. Lafayette, who played for the University of Houston, averaged 17 points and nearly 5 rebounds in 48 games with Fort Wayne of the NBADL this season. Both will be around the team for tonight’s season finale against Milwaukee and throughout the playoffs. “Hopefully, they help us in practice,’’ Ainge said. “They’ll be with us to practice on the road. They’ll be able to do some things on scout team and help us get prepared.’’ . . . Brian Scalabrine missed both games of the final road trip, recovering from the same shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games in January. Rivers did not say how long Scalabrine would be out.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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