Celtics have taken fifth before

BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers has spent the better part of the past six months raving about his team's intangibles, most notably its mental resolve and tight-knit bond. Regardless of the obstacles Boston encountered, he showed a never-wavering faith that things would work out in the end.

The Celtics trekked to Miami on Monday, having rallied from a two-game deficit to even the Eastern Conference finals. Now it's a best-of-three series for a chance to play for the NBA title.

All of which begs the question: How in the world did Rivers maintain such faith in his team?

"Because I see them every day in practice, every day together," Rivers said in Miami. "I look at this team and last year's team, and last year's team we would have been out of the playoffs already. We just were not a team. This team is very close, they are very competitive.

"I think they kind of understand that [Rajon] Rondo's the leader of the team -- everybody else plays with Rondo. Kevin [Garnett] is still a great player, Paul [Pierce] is still our best scorer, but they've gotten out of each other's way with roles. Then I think all the new guys have added a great competitive energy to our basketball team.

"So early on when we were losing, I kept saying it: People were getting conditioning messed up with age. They kept looking at our team and saying, 'We're too old.' And I kept saying, 'No, we're out of shape and let's find out how good we are later.'

"Sometimes, as coach, you have a feel about a team. I don't know how good this team is, I've said that, but I know it's a team. We can play with anybody."

On Tuesday night, the Celtics will visit the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena (8:30 p.m., ESPN) looking to build off a big weekend in which they grinded out two wins at TD Garden.

Compared to what they've had to overcome over the past six months, a two-game hole seemed more like an ant hill than the unscalable mountain some made it out to be.

By now you know the specifics: Before the season even tipped, the Celtics lost Jeff Green to a heart ailment. Danny Ainge couldn't pluck Chris Paul off the trade market, and another deal that would have landed David West never got to the finish line. Pierce and Garnett showed up out of shape and labored through much of the first half of a compressed schedule, and Boston was two games under .500 at the All-Star break.

The team stood pat at the trade deadline but lost Chris Wilcox to a heart ailment and Jermaine O'Neal soon elected to have season-ending wrist surgery, further depleting the Celtics' frontcourt.

Boston still surged late to win the Atlantic Division, and the prize was having to open the postseason on the road because the fifth-seeded Hawks had a better overall record after the Celtics rested bodies down the stretch to keep them upright for the playoffs.

The Celtics scrapped through two tough series to make the conference finals only to lose the first two games in Miami, spoiling a brilliant effort from Rondo in Game 2, and everyone busted out their brooms and shovels to bury Boston yet again.

But here are the Celtics, two wins from a chance at advancing to the NBA Finals for the third time in five seasons.

"We've got to win a game in Miami, of course, if we have a chance of winning this series," Pierce said after Sunday's overtime win in Game 4. "We know it's not going to be easy. A good old classic bar fight. Going into it, you've got to expect every game to be like this, coming down to the wire, both teams trying to find an edge."

Part of what's allowed the Celtics to thrive in the postseason is their big-game experience. Since the Big Three united, no team in the league has played more postseason games than Boston (90 total, just ahead of the Lakers at 89; the Magic are next at 59).

And maybe no situation has brought out the best in Boston like a series tied at 2. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Celtics are a perfect 8-0 in Game 5 of a tied series, and they went on to win six of those series (the exceptions: 2010 vs. Lakers; 2009 vs. Magic).

What's more, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Celtics as a franchise are 26-2 when they win Game 5 of a best-of-seven series that's tied at 2. They are 3-8 when they lose Game 5 of such a series. Conversely, the Heat are 4-2 all time when they win Game 5 of a best-of-seven series that's tied at 2. They are 0-3 when they lose Game 5.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledged that Boston simply has that big-game DNA.

"If you're a competitor, you live for this," he said on Monday in Miami. "And it's everything about it. It's the highs and the lows, the knowing but not knowing. It's competition, man. And these are the days that, 20 years from now, we'll all be thinking about, 'Oh, man, that's when you felt most alive.'"

After saving their season yet again with consecutive wins in Boston this past weekend, the Celtics feel particularly alive. Maybe more than Spoelstra & Co. would like.

"We're better and we can be more consistent than we have been," Spoelstra said. "Here in [American Airlines Arena], we feel confident that we can play. Both teams feel confident right now. That's the way it should be in the conference finals. Our guys are really looking forward to playing this game at home."

"This is great," LeBron James said on Sunday. "This is what the postseason is all about. It's about adversity, ups and downs. Like I said, you never get too high and you never get too low."

The Celtics know that all too well. It's what's gotten them to this point. It's what might get them even further.