Closing run the difference for Celtics

LOS ANGELES -- Once or twice per season, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers challenges all of his players to a footrace. It's a lighthearted moment that often comes when the team needs a moment of levity during the grind of the regular season.

In Sunday's Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rivers put that race training to good use.

In a moment that encapsulated the heads-up play of his team in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, Rivers scrambled onto the court, tripping over his own shoes in order to get the attention of referee Monty McCutchen and call a timeout before what could have been a potential momentum-swinging eight-second violation for failing to advance the ball past half court.

"I guess it was big," Rivers said. "We had one second left. I'm glad they saw me. I don't think they had a choice but to see me, I was past them."

The Celtics were clinging to a five-point lead with 95 seconds to play when Kobe Bryant misfired on a 3-pointer from the right wing. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce collided chasing the rebound, with Pierce spilling to the floor, but Ray Allen was able to keep the ball alive near the baseline.

The Lakers immediately swarmed, trying to get the ball back with Pierce still lying on the ground. That's when Rivers noticed that, with two defenders pestering Rajon Rondo, there was no way Boston could advance the ball before the eight seconds were up.

He was already a couple of feet on the court motioning for a timeout when, as if tripped by an imaginary string near the 3-point line in front of the Boston bench, he stumbled toward the circle as the timeout call was awarded.

Brian Scalabrine, inactive with the return of Marquis Daniels, spilled onto the court behind his coach, clutching his shoulders in celebration of the move. Garnett followed with a hard high-five and an even more emphatic shoulder bump that sent Rivers stumbling again.

Then came the laughter.

"He claimed that he's in shape, and, when he ran out there, we told him he looked like he wasn't in shape," Allen said with a smile. "You guys have got to give him a hard time about that. But he made it out there. So it definitely got us an extra possession."

Added Rivers: "The guys got a kick out of that. It was funny. As big as that little moment was, I actually thought the bigger moment was all the players were laughing at me and it allowed them to breathe a little bit, and I thought that helped us."

For a moment, it wasn't crunch time of what felt like a must-win Game 2 of the NBA Finals for Boston. Instead, it was the February doldrums, 48-year-old Rivers doing his best to lighten up the troops by trudging up and down the hardwood at the team's practice facility in Waltham.

After the 20-second timeout ended, the Celtics snapped back to business mode. Garnett produced a nice touch pass to Kendrick Perkins as Boston's lead ballooned to seven and the Green made their free throws to close out a 103-94 victory that evened the NBA Finals at a game apiece.

In a game in which Boston fumbled away a 14-point, second-quarter lead while watching the Lakers rally ahead in the third quarter, it was the Celtics who made the type of plays down the stretch that savvy veteran teams make in big moments.

The type of plays that set championship teams apart from runner-ups.

Like just a few moments before Rivers' rumble, when Rondo swooped in from behind Derek Fisher and blocked a 3-pointer that could have tied the score with 2:38 to go.

Instead, Boston raced the other way and, even though it took a pair of offensive rebounds, Rondo buried a 20-footer that built upon his triple-double (19 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) and made it a two-possession game.

"We had a chance to be up nine or 12 to end the half, but we weathered that storm, and I thought in the second half we played with great composure because you knew they were going to make a run," Rivers said. "And they did. They made several of them. For us to weather that storm with guys in foul trouble, we had to use every big. I'm just really proud of them."

Not surprisingly, it was the starting 5 -- a collection of players that prides itself on never having lost a series when all its members are healthy -- on the floor when Boston's defense took over the game.

Bryant's bucket with 5:20 remaining put the Lakers out front, 90-87, but L.A. wouldn't score for more than four minutes as Boston rallied ahead, fueled by Rondo, who scored six points in an 11-0 run as the Celtics opened a 98-90 advantage with 1:12 to go.

Bryant broke his team's scoreless streak with a second-chance desperation 3-pointer from a few steps beyond the top of the arc, but it didn't matter. The Lakers settled for one Pau Gasol free throw the rest of the way.

In that final five minutes, the Lakers were 1-of-9 from the field for four points with three turnovers, and Boston was 5-of-9 for 16 points and didn't commit any giveaways.

Garnett, who labored for much of the night for a second straight game, made a clutch 9-foot jumper with 2:38 to go in a one-point game, then added some clinching free throws with 26 seconds to play.

"We went out there and played Celtics basketball, for the most part," said Pierce, who endured his own shooting woes -- 2-of-11 overall for 10 points -- but found a way to help make plays down the stretch. "That's the team I really recognized today."

Thanks in large part to that stretch, that team Pierce recognized has seized home-court advantage in the NBA Finals with the series headed to Boston for the next three games.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson wasn't particularly pleased with some of the calls that went against his team at key moments, including an offensive foul that Rondo drew on Andrew Bynum with 4:39 to go (yet another little moment that floated under the radar).

But at the end of the day, even Jackson had to hand it to Rivers for his hustle play.

"I don't know if you can do that or not," Jackson said. "I don't think that's legal to get on the floor. I think coaches have to stay on the sideline. They're not supposed to be on the floor.

"It's like he was shot out of a starter's block."

Must've been all that practice he had earlier in the season.

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