Celtics took the long way here

CLEVELAND -- The Boston Celtics began the 2009-10 season here at Quicken Loans Arena 197 days ago with championship aspirations that only escalated after topping the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers on their home court on opening night.

Said Celtics captain Paul Pierce at the time: "We just carry on, handle our business, and understand we have one goal in mind."

The Celtics never wavered from that goal over the past 28 weeks, even as their season played out like a roller coaster, rising behind a 23-5 start that culminated with a Christmas Day victory over Orlando, then plummeting out of control as Boston battled injuries and inconsistencies in the new year.

Seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference playoffs, hardly anyone gave the Celtics a chance of getting past LeBron James and the top-seeded Cavaliers.

Pierce simply kept repeating what he had said on opening night: "We really don't care what people say about us. We know what our goal is."

For the past 6½ months, the Celtics have had their eyes on that final prize, but rarely looked like a team capable of reaching it.

Then on Tuesday night, Boston stormed back into Quicken Loans Arena, its fourth visit of the year, and throttled the Cavaliers 120-88 in Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series. Suddenly, the Celtics are up 3-2 with all the momentum as the series shifts back to Boston. After 197 days, it looks like they might finally have put it all together.

They certainly did Tuesday.

From a stifling defense that showed shades of the 2008 championship season and left Cleveland fans booing James, to an unselfish offense that put six players in double figures, to consistent play that avoided the second-half collapses that littered the regular season, the Celtics displayed an effort that may have made everyone outside the Boston locker room realize this team is capable of doing what it had said it planned to do all along.

One season after their injury-detoured hopes of defending their NBA title were dashed in a seven-game loss to the Magic in the East semifinals, the Celtics stand one victory away from the right to battle Orlando for a spot in this year's championship bout.

The only thing more shocking than the position Boston finds itself in is how the team got here. In a seesaw series in which the Cavaliers won Games 1 and 3, and Boston rallied back in Games 2 and 4, Cleveland seemed poised to rise up again Tuesday.

Instead, Boston chased the Cavs straight off their own playground. The Celtics limited James to a mere 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting over nearly 42 minutes of action. In possibly the biggest and most defining game of James' career -- not to mention, potentially his last in Cleveland -- they made the league's two-time MVP look supremely mortal, particularly after he didn't register a single field goal in the first half.

Five of the six Celtics who landed in double figures matched or topped James' output for the night overall.

The Celtics looked like a 12-man juggernaut; the Cavaliers looked like a team waiting for a player to rescue them. It didn't happen.

It might not moving forward.

"That's the beauty of our team, it's what makes us so dangerous," said Pierce. "You look at Cleveland, you know you gotta stop LeBron. With us, it's any number of guys. We've got four or five guys who can lead us in scoring in me, [Rajon] Rondo, Ray [Allen], [Kevin Garnett], and [Rasheed] Wallace. That's why we're so dangerous; different guys are stepping up on different nights."

Echoed Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "We are who we are. We don't need anyone to play hero basketball. We have to be a team. We're good when we're a team."

On Tuesday, the Celtics were the definition of a team.

For all the hoopla that surrounded Rajon Rondo after his triple-double performance in Sunday's Game 4 win and whether the Big Three had passed the torch to him, it became clear Tuesday night that, for the Celtics to play at a championship level, it's going to have to be a torch relay -- something straight out of the Olympic playbook.

At times, Boston played like a Dream Team. The Celtics held Cleveland to without a field goal for nearly an eight-minute stretch in the second quarter, embarking on a 16-0 run that turned an eight-point deficit into a 37-29 lead.

That advantage snowballed in the third quarter when, fueled by second-chance opportunities, Allen drilled a pair of 3-pointers for a 12-2 burst that helped push the lead above 20 before the end of the frame.

When Glen Davis registered a putback 2½ minutes into the fourth quarter, it sent fans sprawling toward the exit, questioning whether they had seen James' final game in a Cavaliers uniform.

Even King James admitted the Celtics played like royalty.

"The Big Three had it going consistently," said James. "That's what Hall of Famers do. When a guy goes to the bench, those guys stepped it up. Those guys were great tonight. All three of them, and then Rondo did what he had to do in the second half."

Assessing the position his team is in now, Antawn Jamison noted: "If we want to be called champions, we have to do what champions do, and that's win on the road."

The Celtics won on the road Tuesday -- just like they had won here in two of their previous four visits -- and pushed Cleveland to the brink of elimination, while moving themselves one step closer to having a chance to be called champions.

Boston always knew it could play here, ever since that opening night win. And even if they doubted themselves along the way, they never took their eyes off the ultimate prize.

"We talk about the process and not getting bored with it and trying to figure out ways to get better every game," said Allen. "No matter how, or who you play, trying to figure out ways to get better, regardless of the outcome. There were a lot of nights we were disappointed, but we tried to find ways to get better.

"The playoffs are the same. You lose a game, you go back to the drawing board. You don't get too excited and too happy. We are not celebrating because we haven't won anything."

But the Celtics are a lot closer than they were 196 days ago.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.