Statistically, the Celtics were mortal locks to win Game 5. At least these Celtics were. Monday night's game against Philadelphia represented the eighth time in the current Big Three (or Big Four) era that the Celtics entered a Game 5 with the series knotted at 2-2.
Their record in those eight games: 8-0.
OK, to be fair, seven of those eight have been at home. The only roadie in the group came in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2010 at Cleveland, a.k.a. The Great LeBron Disappearance Game (Celtics 120, Cleveland 88).
So that's the good news. Here's the other shoe that has yet to drop. In those seven series in which they took the aforementioned 3-2 lead, the Celtics finished the job in Game 6 in only two of them: the 2008 conference finals against the Pistons, and the aforementioned series against the Cavs, a.k.a. LeBron's Last Time Taking His Talents to Cuyahoga Beach (if there is such a place).
It's an article of faith that the closeout game is the toughest to win in a playoff series -- and that certainly has been the case for the Celtics over the past five years. They've won more series than they've lost in that span -- 10-3 -- but their track record in closing games has been spectacularly humdrum.
In 2008: 4-3.
In 2009: 1-3.
In 2010: 3-5.
In 2011: 1-0.
In 2012: 1-1.
That's a record of 10-12, and nine of the 10 wins have come in Boston. The two most painful losses, easily, came in Games 6 and 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals in L.A. after the Celtics had taken a 3-2 lead over the Lakers. The Celtics already fell short on their first closeout game this year, Game 5 in Atlanta, and then almost spit the bit at home before barely winning Game 6. Doing things the quick and easy way is not a trademark of the Celtics. They make you squirm.
This series is a perfect example. How great would it have been for these guys to have somehow managed to hold that 18-point lead in Game 4 and then finished off the Sixers on Monday? The Celtics would have had at least four days off -- and they could use it. Now, they have to go back to Philly to play Game 6 -- and that is no guaranteed W, as we all know with this team -- in their first chance to eliminate the frisky Sixers.
"Listen, this series is hard," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "They're a good team. They're an athletic team. Every minute you think we're leaking oil, physically. So we've got a quick turnaround and we're going to have to be ready. I just want us to play the right way every minute. If we do that, I don't know if we'll win or not, but we'll be good."
Save for the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, other teams have had their problems closing series with peak efficiency. Miami lost a closeout Game 4 in New York before settling things at home in Game 5. The Lakers blew two chances to finish off the Nuggets, and when they look back on that series they may decide that it cost them against the Thunder. The Clippers failed to close out the Grizzlies at home in Game 6 and then the Grizzlies failed to close out the Clippers at home in Game 7.
The NBA has already announced that if both Eastern Conference semifinals end in six games, the conference finals will start Saturday. No rest for the weary. And by the way, would someone please explain why the Spurs and Thunder, who were both done Monday, don't have to play until Sunday while the two Eastern winners could finish by Thursday and then have to play Saturday? Is there some Eastern Conference bias going on? Couldn't the Spurs and Thunder play Saturday and let the other guys have an extra day of rest?
Anyway, that's not going to happen, though in the old days you can be sure Red would have picked up the phone and unloaded some Auerbachian bluster to the commissioner over this.
If the Celtics can't finish off Philly on Wednesday, they will have to play Game 7 on Saturday. That would be in Boston, but it would also mean there's a Game 7. Even at home, you want to avoid those at all possible cost. Should they be forced to a Game 7 and win, they'd be off to either Miami or Indiana the next day to begin the Eastern Conference finals on Monday.
That is why taking care of business at the first opportunity is so important, both for this team and in this weird playoff schedule. Rivers conceded as much Monday night. He said the one extra day of rest for his team between Games 4 and 5 was huge, adding that the team's inspired second half and the extra day off was "no coincidence." But he doesn't know when he'll have that cushion again.
"We don't have the luxury to practice [Tuesday]. We couldn't if we wanted to," Rivers said. "So it's just what we've gone through. The good thing for this group, honestly: We've done this all year. We've kind of been a makeshift group all year. And so it's not a distraction, I will tell you that. Our guys, they're very professional about it."
And do we even need to address the many reasons a win Wednesday would be better for one and all in sickness and in health? Avery Bradley's shoulder, Paul Pierce's knee, Ray Allen's ankle, Rajon Rondo's back, Mickael Pietrus' hamstring, Kevin Garnett's hip. Everyone is nursing something.
These guys will still be hurting no matter what happens Wednesday, but they'll feel a little better if they leave Philadelphia knowing that there's no Game 7 pressure to face. That's the obvious part. The harder part is going out and getting it done. Recent history ain't exactly on their side.