Austin Rivers always thinks he can beat anyone.
This is something that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau discovered when he was an assistant on Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston. Austin, then a cocky high school junior, was visiting his dad at the Celtics’ practice facility. In a story that has become a minor legend around the NBA, Austin challenged future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett to a first-to-score-five one-on-one game.
"This is a high school kid and I know he has a lot of confidence, but I’m a dragon," Garnett recalled a while back on an appearance on the Chris Vernon show.
Rivers, who had beaten Celtics center Kendrick Perkins in one-on-one, dunked on Garnett before he could tie his shoes. That’s when Garnett decided, coach’s son or not, it was time to teach this kid a lesson.
"I scored five straight. I mopped him, 5-1," Garnett said. "He was hot. He threw the ball. They threw him out of the gym . . . He had so much swag."
Eleven years later, Rivers still has that swag, which was on full display Wednesday night in the Knicks’ 112-100 victory over the Utah Jazz. Rivers came off the bench and scored 14 straight points for the Knicks in the fourth quarter of their fifth victory in six games.
"I tell you the one thing he’s never lacked is confidence," Thibodeau said.
That is great news for Knicks fans. Confidence is exactly what the team needs as it tries to convince young players who haven’t seen much NBA success that they can win on any given night.
Much has been made of Thibodeau changing the culture on the Knicks, but you cannot underrate the importance of having a veteran player who is all-in.
Rivers, 28, has bounced around the league, playing on five different teams in his nine seasons. Only once, with the Clippers in 2017-18, has he started more than 29 games. Yet he knows how to win, having been to the playoffs five straight seasons with the Clippers and the Rockets before coming to New York. He also knows how to seize the big moment, as we’ve seen in the last three games.
After missing the preseason and the first five games of the season with a groin issue, Rivers has hit late three-pointers in the Knicks’ last three wins. Against Utah, in his first game as a Knick at the Garden, he hit four straight threes down the stretch.
"I love the stage," he said. "I know every player says this when they come here that they want to play on this stage, but I really do. I thrive on it. You have to be OK with missing the shots. You have to be OK with making the wrong play or the right play. When you have the ball in your hand at the end of the game, you can’t worry about the makes or misses or turnovers. You trust yourself and live with the outcome."
It’s the same sort of attitude that Thibodeau saw Rivers display as a teenager visiting his father years ago. "Austin really thought he could beat Kevin Garnett," Thibodeau said. "That’s the mindset he has."
Looking back, Rivers knows it was ridiculous for him to think he could go one-on-one with future Hall of Famers.
"I grew up idolizing all these guys, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen," he said. "In my crazy mind, I thought I was better than them at the time, even though I was nowhere near. Those are Hall of Famers, so it’s not even a conversation. But in my crazy mind, I thought I was better, and it was fun."
Perhaps that’s the mindset the Knicks need. When you look at their roster, there is no guarantee that they should be better than any other NBA team. But on any given night, they enter believing they are. Or at least believing they are just as good.
It may be crazy, but for the first time in years at Madison Square Garden, it’s also fun.