Opportunity knocks for Celtics

BOSTON -- Paul Pierce clearly isn't a fan of frequent flier miles. Ever since the start of the playoffs, he's made an assertion at every stop along the way that he'd prefer not return to the current opponent's arena.

  • With his Celtics boasting a 3-1 advantage over the Miami Heat as the first-round series shifted back to Boston, Pierce said he didn't want to return to South Beach unless he was on vacation.

  • Owning a 3-1 advantage over the Cleveland Cavaliers before Game 6 against the Cavaliers at the TD Garden, he implored his teammates to end the series and prevent a third trip to Cleveland for a deciding Game 7.

  • After stealing two games on the road to open the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic, Pierce told a national TV audience that Boston was coming home to finish off the series, then informed the crowd he'd see them next year as he walked off the floor.

So should anyone be surprised that ABC's cameras picked up Pierce telling Lakers fans late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 that, "We ain't coming back to LA"? Can we simply agree to take everything Pierce says in the heat of battle with a grain of salt from here on out?

Much like Pau Gasol's innocuous and honest comments Friday about Kevin Garnett having lost a step that triggered a media frenzy, Pierce's latest brazen statement is sure to become a major point before the series resumes in Boston Tuesday night with Game 3 at the TD Garden (ABC, 9 p.m.).

But what exactly did Pierce say that was wrong? Should athletes not believe their teams are capable of winning three straight games? Is there not a possibility that the Celtics could actually win three more games in a row and not have to fly back to the West Coast?

Didn't the 2004 Detroit Pistons (against, ahem, the Lakers) and 2006 Miami Heat win the three middle games as part of their championship campaigns?

But Pierce's comments will be construed as overly boisterous and taunting. Even though he's on record recently as noting that he simply likes to have fun with the road crowds that torment him for 48 minutes each night, Pierce's suggestions will be labeled bulletin-board fodder.

The fact remains that the Celtics are coming home with a chance to close out this series on their own turf. It's their reward for stealing home-court advantage from the Lakers by winning Game 2 Sunday night at the Staples Center.

As is often the case each year, some are already lamenting the 2-3-2 format, saying it favors the road team too much. Pierce and his teammates met that suggestion with shrugged shoulders after Sunday's triumph.

"That's the schedule, I can't control it, I can't change it," said Pierce. "Hopefully it works to our advantage, but we gotta take it one game at a time. Game 3 at our house, we gotta take care of business."

Echoed Kevin Garnett: "I feel good going back to the Jungle. [The 2-3-2 format] is really out of my control. It is what it is. It's good to be going back home."

Ultimately, the national perception swings with every game, every quarter, every play. The Celtics were dead in the water after a Game 1 loss, now the Lakers are in trouble because they lost Game 2.

Game 3 will be the biggest game of the series ... until Game 4.

"We've just got to go into Boston and win," said Kobe Bryant, who didn't elaborate much during his concise postgame comments after Sunday's loss. "It's a series. You're trying to stay even keel. You don't get too high, don't get too low after a win or a loss. You just go into the next one and take care of business.

"It's the most important game. Game 1 was the most important, Game 2 was the most important, now it's Game 3. It's just the next game -- simple as that."

The Celtics used that one-game focus to move on after being handily outplayed in Game 1. Now, instead of focusing on the potential to close out at home, Boston needs to focus simply on winning Game 3.

Boston can't close out in Game 5 if it doesn't win Game 3.

"One game could change the whole series," said Rajon Rondo. "[Sunday] we came in and did what we had to do. We got the win. We played extremely hard [Sunday]. But like you said, Game 3 is the biggest game of the series so far. These two games are behind us. [The Lakers are] not in a bad situation at all. They're a good road team, and we're a good home team. It's going to be a good game."

Of course, history suggests in no uncertain terms that Game 3 is a pivotal contest. Since the 2-3-2 format was introduced in 1985, the winner of Game 3 when a Finals series was tied 1-1 has gone on to win on 10 of 10 occasions.

In the history of the Finals, when the series has been tied going into Game 3, the winner of that contest has gone on to win 28 of 32 series (87.5 percent winning percentage).

During the 2008 Finals, Boston won all three meetings against the Lakers at home but those didn't come in a streak. The Celtics prevailed at home in Games 1, 2 and 6 and dropped two of three on the road in Los Angeles.

"It would be tough for us to go home and win three straight," admitted Rondo. "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."

Now Boston has a little wiggle room at home. Win two out of three and even if, much to Pierce's chagrin, the Celtics have to fly back to Los Angeles, Boston would have two chances at a closeout on the road.

And something tell us that Pierce won't be too upset if he has to raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the shadow of his hometown of Inglewood instead of in Boston.

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