The Celtics pushed the defending champs to the brink of elimination on Sunday when Paul Pierce netted 27 points and Boston overcame a big night by Kobe Bryant to hold off the Lakers, 92-86, in the pivotal Game 5 at TD Garden.
Kevin Garnett tallied 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Rajon Rondo contributed 18 points and eight assists for the Celtics, who hold a 3-2 lead in the best- of-seven series and are a victory away from their second title in three years. They also polished off Los Angeles in six games in 2008.
If Boston, which has won the past two games in the set, can't finish off the Lakers tonight in Game 6, a deciding Game 7 would be Thursday, again in Southern California.
"We have a challenge, obviously, down 3-2," said Bryant. "We let a couple opportunities slip away, but it is what it is. Now you go home, you've got two games at home that you need to win, and you pull your boots up and get to work."
The Lakers are 9-1 during the postseason on their home floor but the lone loss came to these very same Celtics in Game 2 of the finals back on June 6.
"The Lakers have played the best between us to get home court advantage, but we've played the best all year on the road," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "So our team will be ready, and it's going to be a hell of a challenge for us because they're going to be great, and we're going to have to beat them at their best."
Bryant scored 28 of his 38 points in the second half of Game 5 for the Lakers, who had won their previous 14 playoff games when a series was tied. Bryant had little offensive support as the next best scorer was Pau Gasol with 12 points and 12 rebounds. LA center Andrew Bynum, who continues to deal with a balky right knee, had six points in over 31 minutes of court time.
Bryant is averaging 30.2 points per game in the series, while fellow All-Star Gasol, although inconsistent, is netting 18.8 points and 10 rebounds. The rest of the Lakers, especially Ron Artest and reserves Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown have played poorly in the set.
The NBA Finals has been deadlocked at two apiece 25 times and the winner of Game 5 has gone on to win the series 19 times. Meanwhile. since the finals changed to a 2-3-2 format back in 1985, 13 of the 15 teams that have held a 3-2 edge in the set went on to win and 12 of them did it in Game 6.
The last time the finals were tied 2-2 and the Game 5 winner didn't win the series came in 1994 when the Rockets lost Game 5 to the New York Knicks, then won Games 6 and 7 in Houston to win the title.
"It's still anybody's series," Rondo said. "They're the world champions. They're the defending champions. I'm sure they're going to come out and fight hard, so it's not over, the series is not over yet."
If the Celtics win the series it would also halt an incredible streak by Lakers coach Phil Jackson. When Jackson's teams have won Game 1 of any playoff series, which they did in this set, they are a perfect 47-0. When holding a series lead of any kind, Jackson's teams are 54-1 all-time.
"If you look at it, they've come home and carried the 3-2 lead back," Jackson said. "It's basically home court, home court. Now we're going back to home court to win it. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it?"
The 2010 Finals marks the Lakers' 31st trip to the championship series and Boston's 21st appearance with 12 of those overlapping.
Their finals history dates all the way back to the 1958-59 season when the Lakers still called Minneapolis home. Boston and the game's ultimate winner, Bill Russell, dominated the early years of the rivalry. The Red Auerbach-era Celtics took the Lakers all seven times they met in the finals, although the Jerry West, Elgin Baylor-fueled LA clubs did manage to take Boston to seven games on three different occasions.
The rivalry lay dormant for 15 years until Larry Bird and Magic Johnson "saved" the NBA by bringing their own storied college rivalry to the pros. Bird avenged his loss at Indiana State to Magic's Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 NCAA Finals when the Celtics got past the Lakers in seven games to win the 1984 NBA title.
Johnson and his Lakers responded the next season as LA finally beat Boston in the finals for the first time. Magic also won the rubber match two years later before the rivalry went cold again, this time for 20 years as the Celtics struggled mightily in the post-Bird era.
Boston basketball chief Danny Ainge re-ignited things by acquiring both Garnett and Ray Allen before the 2007-08 season. The two All-Stars teamed with Pierce to create the "Boston Three Party" and the Celtics were relevant again. A 17th Boston championship was the result as Garnett and his Celtics got the best of Bryant's Lakers.
A rematch could have been in the offing last season but a knee injury to Garnett derailed any hopes of a Celtics repeat. Instead, LA earned its 15th championship by taking Orlando in five games.
The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win 32 of the NBA's 63 titles coming into this series.