BOSTON -- Exiting the parquet floor for the last time this year, Paul Pierce held one finger aloft and told the story everyone in the building already knew:
With the series heading back to Los Angeles and the Celtics staked to a 3-2 lead, the next two games are both potential close-out games for Boston. And while on paper they have two chances to win the series, they're looking at Tuesday's Game 6 the same way they looked at Game 4 and Game 5 -- they're all Game 7s to the Celtics.
"Bottom line is when they won Game 3, every next game is a must game," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "Each game is a Game 7. That's how we have to approach this game."
Paul Pierce concurred with his coach.
"You don't want to go into LA down 3-2 with two games in LA So this was the biggest game of the year. You know, every game gets bigger," Pierce said after scoring 27 points on 12-for-21 shooting. "Great opportunity for us, we've got two games in LA, we've just got to get one. I think we've been a great road team all year. We're just going to try to get it done."
Given that the Celtics have trailed twice in this series, 1-0 and 2-1, a 3-2 lead after winning the last two games at the Garden feels like a major momentum swing to outsiders. But as Lakers coach Phil Jackson pointed out, in a 2-3-2 format, after five games, home court would say that the Celtics should have the 3-2 lead.
The Celtics, as Pierce said, were a fantastic road team this season (only the Dallas Mavericks, who won 27 road games, were better away from home than the 26-15 Celtics), and even more encouraging is that over the last two months of the playoffs, they've become incredibly good at concentrating on the next game and not looking too far ahead.
Paul Pierce has been a model of that mentality, as he's remained even-keeled throughout the postseason in times of feast and famine. Pierce, who hadn't had big offensive games in the first four games of the Finals, broke out in Game 5 and helped the Celtics survive a Kobe Bryant whirlwind in which the Black Mamba showered the C's with seven straight field goals and 19 of his 38 points in just under seven minutes of game time.
But as much as Bryant looked unstoppable in the third, draining one jumper more ridiculous than the last, the Lakers couldn't seem to stop the Celtics' bread-and-butter offense either. So Bryant's Nintendo-style rampage amounted to nothing in the grand scheme of things, and the Celtics actually expanded their lead heading into the fourth.
Meanwhile, Pierce wasn't doing it as loudly or as spectacularly as Bryant, but he got his offense flowing, knocking down elbow jumpers and playing rope-a-dope with Ron Artest. He kept the Lakers' stopper off balanced with jab-steps, head-fakes and crafty moves in the paint to free himself up for quality looks at the basket that translated into buckets for the C's.
"Well, you know, Paul is a very deliberate ballplayer, and when he's comfortable out there, he can be very difficult to guard," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Pierce. "He's got a step-back, he's got a nice shot that he takes off the dribble. His post-up game is good. There's a lot of things that he has as weapons out there. He had Ron guessing out there for much of the game. "
If you're like some in the media who were guessing that Pierce was frustrated with his lack of offensive production over the first four games of the series, you're clearly not paying enough attention to what the Ubuntu-era Celtics have been all about for the last three seasons.
With so many options in their offense, the Celtics have the luxury of exploring their offense first and then deciding who's got the hot hand to ride rather than always looking in the same place for regular scoring and bailout plays.
But when it was clear that Pierce was feeling it from jumpstreet, the C's wasted little time finding their Captain scoring opportunities.
"Like I said, wanted to just be aggressive from the jump. Coach came out, ran the first play for me, I came off the pick-and-roll, got a nice look and just wanted to continue throughout the rest of the game," Pierce said. "Teammates did a good job of finding me open, setting picks. But it was all in the team flow, and it was great. I was just a little disappointed I wasn't able to get to the line as much as I shot the ball. I usually get to the line a little bit more. But it was a good win."
One more win remains, and the Celtics know that it will be the hardest victory to attain. Said Kevin Garnett of the Celtics' prospects of closing out the series in Game 6: "This will be the hardest game of the series, if not of the season, if not of everyone's career."