BOSTON -- Doc Rivers was tempted to run onto the court again and call a timeout, but didn't want to endure that kind of ridicule again. Anyway, before he had time to put fingertips to palm, Kevin Garnett already had unleashed his inner Tom Brady.
Garnett's gutsy 50-foot pass down the sideline to Paul Pierce, with 38.9 seconds left and the Lakers well within striking distance, was the latest and best example of how the Celtics have taken control of the NBA Finals.
Pierce reached over the top of Derek Fisher to corral the pass, tip-toed the sideline like an NFL receiver, and fired an off-balance dart to Rajon Rondo, who'd beaten Ron Artest down the court for a layup. The biggest layup of the season for the Celtics also clinched the most crushing disappointment for the Lakers since they staggered out of the Garden after a 39-point loss to Boston in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals.
"I was just showing off my Randy Moss and Tom Brady in one play, that's all," Pierce said after the Celtics beat the Lakers 92-86 on Sunday night to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series. The defending champion Lakers face elimination on their home court Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
Pierce was right about the first part, but not the second. That was not all. The Celtics outshot, outhustled, overpowered and suffocated the Lakers Sunday night in the kind of performance that has become their hallmark in this mystical postseason run. They've done this to Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Now, they're pummeling the Lakers with a drumbeat of muscle-laden screens, backdoor cuts, putback tips, crafty inbounds plays and Rondo-esque locomotion that has spread four seats deep on Rivers' bench.
"You know now as the series progresses," Ray Allen said in the locker room, "there's something that has to give."
Increasingly, the Celtics do not appear to be the team that will break.
Recap: Celtics 92, Lakers 86
|Schedule and Results|
Game 1: Lakers 102, Celtics 89
Game 2: Celtics 103, Lakers 94
Game 3: Lakers 91, Celtics 84
Game 4: Celtics 96, Lakers 89
Game 5: Celtics 92, Lakers 86
Game 6: 9 p.m. ET - Tuesday, June 15 (L.A.)
Game 7: 9 p.m. ET - Thursday, June 17 (L.A.)
They've withstood an epic 0-for-13 shooting night from Allen in Game 3 and a sluggish start to the series from their primary scorer, Pierce. On Sunday night, they withstood what I like to refer to as the smoke monster, Kobe Bryant, and the massive, series-altering game that everyone knew was coming from him. Except that Bryant had that game Sunday night -- 38 points, 19 in a ruthless third quarter -- and the Celtics won the game. Watching them do that -- watching them hold the Lakers' vaunted triangle offense below 40 percent shooting and dominate the paint against the most intimidating interior team in the NBA for the second successive game -- has me believing for the first time in this series that the Celtics can actually win it.
Count the Celtics among those who believe, but not too much. Rivers won't let them.
"I think teams get in trouble when they start looking at the big picture and thinking about the wrong things," Rivers said outside the Celtics locker room. "We've been in so many playoff series the last three years, it teaches you how to appreciate the opportunity."
The Celtics had the opportunity to seize the first burst of palpable momentum in this series because Pierce was playing the role of Kobe Light in the third quarter. As Kobe was going 1-on-5 in a startling virtuoso display that spoke to both his greatness and his lack of support, Pierce was getting his, too.
There was a corner 3-pointer, a driving layup, his patented step-back dagger, and a spin-move that yielded a jumper from the top of the circle that pushed the Celtics' lead to 73-61 with 1:05 left in the third.
"It was all in the team flow, and it was great," said Pierce, who had only one of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and still managed to make the play that put the game away. In truth, it never felt like Pierce vs. Kobe, even in the third, when they did most of their damage.
"What do you expect?" Pierce said. "He's one of the greatest players ever to play this game. At the end of the day, we get the win, and that's the most important thing."
The Lakers cut it to 81-75 with 6:02 left on Lamar Odom's putback; if it weren't for 16 offensive rebounds for 14 second-chance points, Bryant would've accounted for more than half the Lakers' points. So when Rivers said in the postgame news conference that he was worried the Celtics were waiting for the Lakers to lose the game instead of trying to go win it, this is what he was talking about.
He got the answer he was looking for -- not from his best player on this night, Pierce, and not from Rondo, Allen, Garnett or the emotional bench players who had stolen Game 4. He got it from all of them.
For the last six minutes of the most important quarter of the series, the best basketball team on the court beat the best individual. This is the way it almost always goes in this sport, and it is why the Celtics have taken control of the Finals.
"Again tonight, they got all the hustle points in terms of loose balls and offensive rebounds down the stretch," Bryant said. " ... They just got to every ball. They played with more tenacity than we did in that stretch, and we have to do a much better job in Game 6."
|Paul Pierce doesn't outplay Kobe. It isn't necessary. His teammates play a major role to lead Boston to victory. (AP)|
Back and forth they went, Bryant fueling another run because nobody else would. His three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point attempt made it 87-82 with 90 seconds to play. Then came the dagger -- not a 1-on-5 play from the best scorer on the floor, but a team play that sent fear, and then relief, rushing through Rivers' veins. Garnett-to-Pierce-to-Rondo made it 89-82 with 35.2 seconds left and sent the Celtics to a position of strength in a series that will be won by the team that plays like one. It isn't sexy to be good at sideline-out-of-bounds plays, but it does a pretty good job of winning basketball games.
"You hope you don't need it, to be honest," Rivers said. "But you work on it every day, and you work on it as a staff every day. That's something you have to work on, getting the ball inbounds, because it happens more than people think. Our guys were pretty prepared for it. They pretty much knew what we were going to do on it. That was good."
How close did he come to calling timeout before Garnett unleashed his pass down the sideline for Pierce? We'll never know.
"I counted to three and the ball was in the air," Rivers said. "It was too late. I couldn't run out on the floor anymore."
For the chance to be a part of a team that plays like this, Rivers probably wishes he could.