LOS ANGELES -- "3 Mo." After Game 1, the phrase written on the dry erase board in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room served as a source of motivation. After Game 2, it remained on the board, unchanged, serving as a reminder that the Lakers remain three wins away from winning the NBA championship, and a reminder that they must now to travel to Boston for the next three games.
If the Lakers are to win "3 Mo," they must win at least one game in Boston, something they were unable to do two years ago, when the Celtics not only won all their Finals home games but also came back from a 24-point deficit in the third quarter to steal one in Los Angeles.
This wasn't part of the redemption plan the Lakers had in mind. As they quietly walked out of the locker room following the Celtics' 103-94 win in Game 2, which tied the series at one game apiece, the Lakers no doubt remembered the helpless feeling of falling into a 2-0 hole leaving Boston two years ago. They had wanted to put the Celtics in the same position in this series. More than that, they had wanted to keep home-court advantage, something they had worked all season to earn. But it took them only five minutes to lose it, as they hit just one of nine 9 shots and committed three crucial turnovers down the stretch.
If the cliché that a playoff series doesn't begin until the home team loses is true, than this season's NBA Finals began Sunday night, but the Lakers could have essentially ended the series if they had been able to hold on to the 90-87 lead they had with 5:20 left in the game.
When a team goes up 2-0 in the NBA Finals they go on to win 90.3 percent of the time (28-3). Only twice since the advent of the 2-3-2 format in 1985 has the home team won all three middle games, and in the 2-3-2 format (since 1985), when the NBA Finals is tied 1-1, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to win the series on 10 of 10 occasions (100.0%)
Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who had a playoff career-high 21 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocked shots, understood the importance of holding home court but believes the Lakers can not only regain it at TD Garden on Tuesday but put themselves in position to do more than that if they win Game 3.
"We have to win two in Boston at least," Bynum said. "That's our goal going in there. We have to win Game 3 on Tuesday. That will be the most important game of the series."
Bynum wasn't just reciting a cliché by saying Tuesday's game would be the most important of the series. If you look at the history of the NBA Finals, when the series is tied 1-1, Game 3 has been the most important game in determining the series winner. In the 32 times the Finals have been tied 1-1 after two games, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to win the title 87.5 percent of the time (28-4). The percentage is higher than that of the Game 5 winner, when the series is tied 2-2 (19-6), or even for a team that goes up 3-2 (34-6).
This is actually the first Finals since 2004 in which the series is tied 1-1 after two games. The Lakers can only hope history doesn't repeat itself from six years ago when the Detroit Pistons not only won a game in Los Angeles but became the first team to win all three of their middle home games to take the series in five games.
Derek Fisher has been a part of two Lakers teams that split the first two games of the Finals at home and both ended in five games, but with different results (the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in 2001).
Fisher, however, never thought this series with the Celtics would go four or five games. As he watched old Lakers-Celtics highlights on television prior to the start of the series, he always envisioned it being a six- or seven-game slugfest with both teams winning on the road.
"It's the Finals. The reason why we remember the great Lakers-Celtics series of the '80s is because nobody was getting swept," said Fisher. "There weren't many series that went 4-0 or 4-1. They were battling six and seven games tooth and nail and that's what it takes to be champion. It's not supposed to be easy. Now we obviously need to win on Tuesday."
The Lakers, who before Sunday were 9-0 at home this postseason and had won 28 of their past 31 home playoff games, must now go into the far more uncertain territory of having a must-win game on the road (where the Lakers are 4-4 this postseason). It's a situation these Lakers may not be familiar with, but one that last season's team faced a couple times before the Finals began.
"You never want to lose at home when you're as good as we are but this is part of the process," Fisher said. "If you want to be the best you have to be able to get back up when you get punched. Last year we lost a game at home against Houston and then we lost a game at home against Denver. It's the back and forth, topsy-turvy nature of sports. The best are able to respond. They responded and now we have to respond Tuesday night to this game."
As much as the Lakers wanted to get a stranglehold on the series, they knew it wouldn't be that easy against a Celtics team that viewed Sunday's game as a must-win. Although the Celtics are now in position to win the title at home, they realize the odds of beating the Lakers three straight in Boston are slim. They simply want to put themselves in position to come back to Los Angeles up 3-2.
"It would be tough for us to go home and win three straight," said Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who had 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists Sunday. "It's possible, but it would be very tough with the defending champs. We did what we needed to do, came out here and got a split."
The Lakers must now do what they need to do and reclaim home court in Game 3 in Boston. If they don't, they will be "2 Mo" losses away from losing to the Celtics in the Finals again.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.