Road-weary Celtics face their toughest challenge of the playoffs

CLEVELAND -- It has gotten to the point with the Boston Celtics' road playoff woes that Terry Rozier believes more drastic measures might be necessary.

"Somebody bring Lucky," Rozier said, playfully suggesting Boston's leprechaun mascot should make the trek to Cleveland after the Celtics' Game 5 triumph Wednesday that moved them one win from an NBA Finals berth.

The Celtics have tied an NBA single-season record by winning 10 straight home playoff games to open the 2018 playoffs. But as stellar as they have been at TD Garden this postseason, the Celtics have been equally as cringe-worthy on the road in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

The Celtics visit the Cavaliers in Game 6 on Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Boston's only road win this postseason was an overtime triumph over the 76ers in the "Confetti Game," in which the Celtics needed some of coach Brad Stevens' whiteboard wizardry to help steal the victory.

While Celtics players readily acknowledge how difficult it is to win on the road in the playoffs, their home vs. road splits are still staggering. Boston's offensive rating plummets by 11.5 points per 100 possessions on the road, and the team's defensive rating spikes by 10.8 points. Boston's plus-10.7 net rating at home would easily rank as the best in the playoffs, but its minus-11.6 net rating on the road would rank the Celtics worst among the 16 playoff teams.

So what gives?

"I don't know. I really don't," Rozier said. "Our fans are doing a great job of just lifting us up. We have the best fans in basketball. We've been very successful at home, and obviously, we're looking to compete at the highest level and play our hearts out on Friday and shock the world.

"They don't think we can win on the road."

It's too easy to suggest that Boston's road woes boil down to the team's youth and inexperience. Yes, this team was completely overwhelmed by the intensity and environment when it waltzed into Milwaukee up 2-0 in Round 1 and got throttled in Game 3. The Celtics collected themselves and, with the aid of home court, won the series in seven games.

These Celtics are largely unflappable, and the team's youngest players, such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have been some of its best road performers. Of the six Celtics players averaging double figures in scoring in the playoffs, only one averages more on the road than home: Tatum jumps from 17.6 points per game at home to 19.4 on the road.

The Celtics, as a whole, simply haven't been as crisp on the road, falling prone to maddening scoring lulls and being unable to contain their opponent's role players the way they have inside their own building.

"I just think that, at home, one of the big things is, I truly believe it's our fans," Al Horford said. "I feel like our guys feed off of them, and it really just drives us as a group. ... You get on the road, and you're just out there against everybody else."

Horford is one of just four players remaining from last year's Celtics team that won Game 3 in Cleveland, the only win Boston won on the road in a five-game Eastern Conference finals.

Since a Game 2 loss to the Pacers in Round 1, the Cavaliers are 7-0 at home, winning by an average of 12.3 points per game. In their two home wins against Boston, the Cavaliers have an average margin of victory of 19.5 points, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

Winning in Cleveland is the challenge for a Boston team that would prefer to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7 battle Sunday even though it would take place in Boston.

"We're going to have to play a great game come Friday because they're tough at home," Horford said. "At least in our series, they've just had their way. So we have to make sure that we're really focused and committed to playing the right way the whole game. I think that we've done it at spurts over there. We have to be more consistent."

"We have a special opportunity. A lot of the guys, we may never get this opportunity again."
Celtics PG Terry Rozier

What's wild about Boston's road woes is that the Celtics were one of the best teams away from home in the NBA this season. The Celtics posted an East-best 28 road wins, three more than the No. 1-seeded Toronto Raptors. Only Western Conference finalists Houston and Golden State won more often on the road this season.

Heck, the Celtics won more games on the road than they did at TD Garden (27) during the regular season.

During one stretch midway through the season, the Celtics lost six of nine games at home, with two three-game losing streaks sandwiching the stretch. Players were flummoxed trying to explain the home woes.

Some of Boston's finest play this season came on the road. Nine of the team's victories during its early-season, 16-game winning streak came as visitors, and the Celtics routinely overcame double-digit deficits in those games while building the confidence that has delivered them to the doorstep of the Finals.

Stevens has consistently implored his team to avoid chatter about home vs. road splits. Stevens doesn't want his team to have an expectation about performance based simply on location. He wants his team to feel as if nothing will come easy at home and as if it can compete with anybody on the road.

Stevens said the key for Boston in reversing its postseason fortunes is to simply play better, play harder and operate with more poise. Essentially, he doesn't want his team to overthink a small sample size and instead to just focus on playing good basketball.

His players have enough to worry about with LeBron James & Co.

"It's a big challenge, going into their place; playing against them is going to be the biggest challenge all year," Celtics center Aron Baynes said. "But it's going to be fun. That's what you play this game for -- to be in these situations. For us to go out there, we're gonna have to respond, and it's going to be a fun one for us."

The Celtics understand that the prize, should they find their second road win of the playoffs, is ending James' run of East supremacy and earning an improbable trip to the Finals for a Boston team that's playing without the services of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

"You got a group like this that's been through a lot of ups and downs. We are one game away from our ultimate goal of making it [to the Finals]," Rozier said. "We don't want to think ahead, but we have a special opportunity. A lot of the guys, we may never get this opportunity again.

"We have to understand that and come out and fight and compete like hell."