Five things to watch for in Game 6
Celts need contributions from everyone and maintain their make-them-earn-it defense
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics can eliminate the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and secure themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference finals opposite the Orlando Magic with a win Thursday night at the TD Garden. Here are five areas to watch in Game 6 (ESPN, 8 p.m.).
1. Winning as a teamCeltics coach Doc Rivers spent the better part of the first quarter of Game 5 imploring his players to stop trying to win the game on their own and play team basketball.
When they finally seemed to heed his advice, an eight-point second-quarter deficit quickly morphed into a six-point halftime lead and snowballed from there.
While all eyes were on Rajon Rondo after his triple-double outburst in Game 4, the Celtics thrived on balance in Game 5, putting six players in double figures, including their entire starting lineup. Their philosophy was to take what the defense gave them and have confidence that any of their 12 guys can hurt the opposition.
"The goal for us is to run our stuff and trust," Rivers said. "It's not trying to make anyone guess -- I'm not that smart, and I don't think our team's that smart. Our goal is, if they're taking something away, pass the ball to the other guy and the ball will find what they're giving you. At times we try to force the ball, force to make it happen.
"If you watch the first five minutes of [Game 5], that was us. They all tried to [do it themselves]. Everyone grabbed it, trying to force attention. I spent the whole timeout just telling them to trust that the ball will end up where they're telling us they want it to go and that guy will hurt them."
Case in point: The Cavs ignored Tony Allen in the second half of Game 4 and he found space to cut while generating 15 points. The Cavaliers seemed so concerned with the Big Three and Rondo that Glen Davis roamed free in Game 5 and chipped in 15 points.
Rivers also wants his team to lean on its experience, even if age is nothing but a punchline to those outside the Boston locker room.
"When we play well, it's because they're experienced, and when we suck it's because we're too old," Rivers joked. "And, in some way, that may be true at times. I'd always lean on the experience side. It's important to have it."
As Rondo is fond of noting, the Celtics haven't lost a playoff series with their current starting five intact. It's a trend the Celtics hope continues moving forward.
2. History on their side?Leading the Magic in the fourth quarter of Game 6 during last year's playoff series against Orlando, the Celtics were 4:50 away from securing a spot in the Eastern Conference finals. Then Boston fell apart at the seams and Orlando rallied to force a deciding Game 7 that it ultimately won at the TD Garden three days later.
It remains the only time in Celtics history that the Green have been up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series and failed to close out the opponent. Boston is hoping to improve on that 32-1 record Thursday, but Rivers is refusing to use last year's collapse as motivation.
"I think [the media] will [point that out]; I don't think I have to," Rivers said. "It doesn't matter, this is not Orlando. This is Cleveland. And we don't have home-court [advantage], as far as the whole series goes [like last year].
"The bottom line is, all that stuff doesn't matter -- it really doesn't. At end of the day, you come out and focus on the process of playing basketball. You can't focus on anything that's happened before, or anything that happens after. I don't even like hearing guys talk about closing out. That doesn't do anything. You gotta play the game, focus on the game of basketball. It's the only way to win this game."
Of course, adding a little fuel to the statistical-probability fire is the fact that the Cavaliers are 0-4 all-time when trailing a best-of-seven series 3-2. But things get decidedly more dicey if the Cavaliers force a deciding Game 7. Need proof?
3. Stats don't lie Game 7 favors the home teamThe winning percentage of home teams in a deciding Game 7 is 80 percent (84-21). What's more, the Celtics and Cavaliers have met in a pair of Game 7s, both in the conference semifinals, with the home team winning each time.
In 2008, Boston prevailed in an epic Paul Pierce versus LeBron James showdown in which P.J. Brown ultimately stole the show in a 97-92 triumph. In 1992, Brad Daugherty (27 points, nine rebounds) and John "Hot Rod" Williams (20 points, eight rebounds) paced the Cavaliers past Reggie Lewis (22 points) and the Celtics 122-104.
4. Make them earn itEven if the Cavaliers weren't far and away the worst free throw-shooting team in the NBA this season (72 percent), the Celtics would probably operate by the same mantra, but forward Glen Davis admitted Wednesday the team has a "no-layup rule" in effect this series.
And while it sometimes comes at the expense of foul trouble, Boston's philosophy since Game 1 has been to make the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James earn those two points rather than get easy layups around the basket.
Nowhere was it more evident than in Game 3 when Pierce bear-hugged O'Neal near the basket to prevent a layup early in the third quarter. It was Pierce's fourth foul of the game, but he hardly lamented the decision.
"That's what we're supposed to do, not give Shaq a wide-open dunk," Pierce said. "It doesn't matter if I have four or five fouls, I'm going to do it for the team."
The Celtics must continue to operate under this strategy, making James work to get near the rim. Much of his struggles in Game 5 (3-of-14 shooting) can be attributed to the fact that Boston forced him to shoot contested jumpers, and he was off-target all night. By not allowing him buckets in the lane, the Celtics further prevented him from getting in a rhythm.
"We have a no-layup rule," Davis said. "The thing about it is, LeBron can't be guarded by one person. One person can get in his way, but it has to be a team effort. You have to scheme, have to have a plan, have to have a mentality to help."
Echoed Rivers: "Let's put it this way: We said 'Enough of him getting to the basket.' For three games he basically had a highway to the basket. Our thought was, we gotta get bodies in front of him. Obviously we don't want to foul, but no layups. There's just too many of them, and it gives them so much juice when he gets there."
5. A fast start could make them crumbleThe first six minutes of Thursday's game could clinch this series for Boston. Regardless of whether the Cavaliers will truly be able to put Game 5 behind them, the Celtics could surely make Cleveland question itself by jumping out to an early lead, particularly with the Garden crowd behind them.
Some early struggles could mentally take Cleveland right out of this game. Asked if he thought the Celtics had psyched out the Cavaliers with Tuesday's Game 5 triumph, Kendrick Perkins said simply: "I don't know if they're psyched out or what. We're doing it as a team, and we're not really worrying about what's going on with them."
Conversely, the Celtics can't let Cleveland jump out to a quick start as it did in Game 4. Sure, Boston rallied right back after the Cavaliers scored the game's first seven points, but if the Cavaliers are on the ground after Game 5's knockdown, the Celtics absolutely cannot let them back up. Boston often had a problem finishing off opponents in the regular season and it will be interesting to see if it has a killer mentality in Game 6.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS: CELTICS-CAVALIERS
GAME 6: C'S 94, CAVS 85
- Celtics Make Most Of It
- A game after struggling in his return, Isaiah Thomas fueled the Celtics to a win against the Knicks as they hang on to the eighth position in the playoff race.
- Adidas Youth Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James #23 Road Burgundy Replica Jersey