Posted Apr 23 2011 6:35PM
NEW YORK -- The Boston Celtics are, in general, a take-care-of-business team, a veteran squad with swagger and an ability to increase their focus when the situation calls for it. But in their four-year run atop the Eastern Conference since acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics have yet to sweep a postseason series.
In the first round a year ago, the Celtics were up 3-0 on the Miami Heat and ahead 77-71 after the third quarter of Game 4 in Miami. But then came a barrage of Dwyane Wade threes, and the Celtics had to close out the series back in Boston.
Over the last four seasons, the Celtics are just 9-11 when they have the ability to win a series, and just 1-9 in close-out games on the road, with the only win coming in Game 5 of the 2008 conference finals in Detroit. Since then, they've dropped seven straight opportunities to finish a series on the road, including two in last year's Finals.
It's hard to believe that the streak won't end Sunday at Madison Square Garden. Chauncey Billups (strained left knee) is still out for the Knicks. And on Saturday, Amar'e Stoudemire (pulled back muscle) expressed some doubt that he would be able to play in Game 4 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), after struggling through Game 3 and feeling more pain the morning after.
A week ago, the Knicks looked like a dangerous opponent. Now ... not so much. With a sub-par defense and little offensive firepower beyond Carmelo Anthony, New York appears ripe for the sweeping. But the Celtics don't want to underestimate their opponent's back-against-the-wall mentality, which they caught a glimpse of in the second half of Game 2.
"Human nature [when facing elimination] is to come out swinging and give it all you got," Jermaine O'Neal said after the Celtics' walk-through practice on Saturday. "Because No. 1, you're very prideful. And two, you're professional."
The Celtics also don't want to take their foot off the gas.
"Close-out games are difficult because it's the one game where you tend to let your guard down," Kevin Garnett said. "You tend to relax versus remembering the things that got you there and how you put yourself in a position to close out."
And really, Game 4 isn't about the Knicks. It's about the Celtics building on what was a breakthrough performance on Friday night. They liked that feeling they had after Game 3, and they want to keep it going, even if Ray Allen and Paul Pierce don't catch fire like they did on Friday.
"It's about being consistent and getting into the next game," O'Neal said. "We can be happy about Game 3 and then lay an egg in Game 4. We want to try to be consistent, because we know if we're fortunate enough to advance, it's going to be a lot tougher."
Unless the Knicks or Philadelphia 76ers pull off a miracle comeback, the Celtics and Heat will meet in the conference semifinals, a series likely to begin next weekend with plenty of hype. And the Celtics would love to have some momentum when they travel to Miami for Game 1.
They'd also like to have Shaquille O'Neal, who is definitely out for Game 4, with his long-term status still somewhat of a mystery. That he made the trip to New York for Games 3 and 4 seems to be an indication that he's closer to being healthy. But until we see Shaq on the floor for more than five minutes (which we haven't seen in almost three months), it's hard not to wonder if he can be much of a factor in these playoffs.
A sweep would allow Shaq's injured calf more time to heal. But Doc Rivers insists that the status of the series and a lack of urgency have nothing to do with the decision on whether or not to get Shaq back on the floor.
"If he could play, I'd play him because I think it would be good for him," Rivers said. "The minute he can play, he'll be on the floor."
Getting Shaq as much floor time as possible would help the Celtics in the long run. So would the right mentality in Game 4 on Sunday.
"It would be great to [sweep]," Rivers said, "but we can't focus on any of the history or any of the past. We've got to focus on this one game."
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