- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Doc Rivers got a phone call from an old Knicks teammate the other day. John Starks was on the line to remind Rivers of their communal suffering 16 years ago. Not that Rivers needed a reminder.
The Knicks led the NBA Finals 3-2 and flew down to Houston to seal the deal. Starks was a starter at guard. An injured Rivers was a spectator. In one of the epic shooting performances of the NBA Finals (and we mean "epic" in an "The English Patient," excruciating-to-watch sense), Starks missed 16 of 18 shots, including a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of Game 6 that might have won it all. He was 0-of-10 in the fourth quarter, with Hakeem Olajuwon getting his hand on the 3-pointer. The Rockets went on to win that game, took Game 7 a couple of nights later, and to this day Rivers still is upset. It was the closest he got to winning an NBA championship as a player.
"We had opportunities, obviously, both in Game 6 and Game 7," Rivers said. "That's a bitter memory for me, obviously. It just felt like I couldn't help. For me, obviously, [it was] a learning experience, but I can't use that for the players on this team. Half of them are too young to remember and half of them probably don't care."
Well here's a teachable moment for Rivers: The Celtics are the seventh team to take a 3-2 lead into the opponent's building for Games 6 and 7 since the dreaded 2-3-2 format was implemented in 1985. Four of those teams -- the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 Bulls, the 1998 Bulls and the 2006 Heat -- took care of business in Game 6 to win the title. The two teams that didn't, Rivers' 1994 Knicks and the 1998 Detroit Pistons, also lost Game 7.
So the message should be clear. The Celtics had better put the word "Armageddon" at the top of their plan for Game 6 Tuesday night because no home team has ever lost Game 7 after winning Game 6 in this scenario.
"Ever since they [the Lakers] won Game 3, we really have felt that every game is a must game," Rivers said. "Each game is a Game 7. That's how we have to approach [Game 6]. We lost our wiggle room by losing that home game."
Another common thread among the aforementioned six series: each one had a memorable Game 6. All told, five of the six Game 6s have been decided by three points or fewer and three were decided either on a late basket or free throws.
• In 1985, it was the Lakers finally breaking through and beating the Celtics for the NBA championship after eight series losses. And they did it in Boston, to boot.
• In 1988, Isiah Thomas set the Finals record for points in a quarter with 25 in the third despite severely spraining his ankle. But what Detroit fans still remember was a terrible call by referee Hugh Evans on Bill Laimbeer (yes, it hurts to say that, but it's true) that enabled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to go to the line and make the game-deciding free throws.
• In 1993, it was John Paxson's 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left that gave the Bulls a 99-98 victory and a three-peat. The Bulls had lost Game 5 at home and won all three games in Phoenix.
• In 1994, it was Starks' grisly shooting. The Rockets prevailed 86-84.
• In 1998, it was, of course, The Shot by Michael Jordan, "gently" nudging aside Bryon Russell with one hand to free himself for the game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds left. Chicago, which had lost Game 5 at home while holding a 3-1 lead, won 87-86.
• In 2006, Dwyane Wade capped an unforgettable NBA Finals with 36 points as Miami prevailed 95-92. The Heat rallied from a 2-0 hole and swept the next four.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the two series that most closely resemble this one are the 1988 and 1994 NBA Finals. In both series, the teams split the first two games. The visiting team then won Game 3. The home team then won Games 4 and 5. Sound familiar?
The Pistons' Joe Dumars still has memories, and not very fond ones, of the 1988 Finals. Although the Pistons would subsequently win championships in 1989 and 1990, the 1988 series remains the one that got away in Dumars' mind.
"I think when you're in the Finals, and you're sitting on three wins, that fourth win consumes you," Dumars said via e-mail. "I know that when we went back to L.A., all we were thinking about was Game 6. We were disappointed that we let an opportunity to capture the world championship slip away, but we came back and played great in Game 7." They did. But they lost 108-105.
So Rivers and Dumars share a tortured history: Both were members of the only teams since 1985 to take a 3-2 lead in an NBA Finals and fail to win Game 6 (or Game 7) on the road. But there are other benchmarks, as well. Will Phil Jackson finally lose a series in which his team has won Game 1? He's 47-0 in such instances. (He also is 54-1 when his team holds a lead of any kind in a series, the one loss coming in 2006 to the Suns when his team blew a 3-1 lead. He's 10-0 since then.) Kobe Bryant (26-0) and Derek Fisher (27-0) also have never lost a series when their team has won Game 1. But this current Boston starting unit has never lost a playoff series and it appears to be gaining confidence and comfort as the series progresses.
But if history is any judge, we are in for a treat Tuesday night, regardless of who wins.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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