Team approach has put Boston Celtics one win away from 18th NBA title

Kobe Bryant's team is in danger of losing in the Finals for a 2nd time in three years.
Kobe Bryant's team is in danger of losing in the Finals for a 2nd time in three years. (Michael Dwyer/associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BOSTON -- Paul Pierce walked off the court on Sunday surrounded by television cameras and serenaded by raucous Boston Celtics fans chanting his nickname: "Truth!" The veteran forward lifted his index finger and shouted back, "One more, baby. Just one more."

He boarded a plane at an airport in Bedford, Mass., the next morning, wearing a backwards, white Red Sox cap and raising his arms to more adoring fans, knowing that he would land in Los Angeles in about five hours with a chance to become the ultimate sports villain in his home town. With the Celtics up 3-2 over the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, the kid who grew up just blocks from the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., where the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers ran fast breaks into his heart, stood one more win from delivering an 18th title for the hated rival.

"It's going to have to happen, if we're going to win the title," Pierce said of the Celtics closing out the series in Los Angeles, after scoring a team-high 27 points in a 92-86 victory at TD Garden. "I mean, that would be great. I'm not going to jinx it right now. We've got to win one more game, that's the goal. But it would be amazing if we get it done."

Amazing is an appropriate adjective, considering that a Celtics victory in Game 6 on Tuesday -- or possibly Game 7 on Thursday -- would conclude one of the more difficult postseason runs in NBA history, with Boston knocking off the three top seeds in the league without possessing home-court advantage. It would also include vanquishing the three best perimeter players in the game, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant -- the latest superstar to realize that a one-man outburst cannot stymie the Celtics.

Pierce used his absence from the discussion about the league's best player to fuel his run to the 2008 NBA Finals, but he realizes that he cannot make this series a duel between him and Bryant -- and he doesn't have to try, with the Celtics proving time and again that the collective group is always superior to an individual.

The Celtics rode Ray Allen's hot hand and Rajon Rondo's all-around game to a victory in Game 2 and let Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Nate Robinson spark a second-unit uprising in Game 4. In Game 5, Pierce did his part to somewhat counter Bryant, nearly matching Bryant shot for shot in the third quarter, scoring 11 points to Bryant's 19. But he scored just one point in the fourth, with Kevin Garnett and Rondo providing hustle and defensive tenacity.

Garnett throttled Lakers forward Pau Gasol and finished with five steals and two blocked shots, while Rondo stole the ball from Bryant leading to one fast-break layup, fought off Bryant and Lamar Odom to tip in a Pierce miss, and made a game-clinching layup after making a difficult catch and pass with 35 seconds remaining.

"We want to give it all we have, and when one guy doesn't have it going, it seems like each game someone else is stepping up and making plays for our team," Rondo said after scoring 18 points with eight assists on Sunday. "We have great camaraderie on the team and we're very close off the court, and guys are always supportive of each other."

While the Lakers appear to cower under Bryant's angry glares and shouts, the Celtics seemed galvanized, as evidenced by Rondo stepping up to push back Lakers forward Ron Artest after Artest shoved Garnett to the ground in the first half. The Celtics have their disagreements, like an incident near halftime when Pierce walked out on a play, pouting because Rondo didn't give him the ball. "We've got spats on our team all the time," Pierce said. "But the good thing about it, we always clean it right up."

The Celtics lost their way altogether in the final months of the regular season, slipping to the fourth seed in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, but rediscovered the defensive intensity and teamwork needed to win in the postseason. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said the key to the turnaround was not looking ahead. "We have a lot of veterans and we just look at one game," he said. "We got off of that early on, looking at the whole picture and all that stuff. That makes if fuzzy for us. I think our team has a very good ability to just focus on the next game. Through the playoffs, that's been very good for us, and that's the way we have to stay."

Boston has never lost in the Finals after leading a series, 3-2, winning in each of its 11 previous occasions. The Celtics have won nine of their 17 championships against the Lakers, winning in five different buildings -- the Minneapolis Auditorium, the old Boston Garden, the Los Angeles Arena, the Forum, and TD Garden. They now stand one victory away from adding another championship at the Lakers' expense at Staples Center.

And for Pierce, the longest-tenured Celtic with 12 years in Boston, the game also represents an opportunity for him to secure a spot as one of the all-time greats for a franchise he grew up despising. "I had dreams of wearing a Laker uniform," Pierce said of his childhood. "I didn't want to be a Boston Celtic but I am a Boston Celtic, and I've enjoyed every moment of it. I've had a chance to learn the history, been around the great players. I don't think it's going to soak in until my career is all said and done and I can really, really look back at it.

"The thing for me, when I step on this court, NBA Finals, I don't want to have no regrets at the end of the series," Pierce said.

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