- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Doc Rivers' late father had three words of advice/encouragement, words that have served the son well in his NBA career as a player and coach.
"Finish the race."
Doc never did finish the big race as a player. He came agonizingly close, watching from the sideline as the 1994 Knicks went down in seven to the Houston Rockets. That's as close as he got to a ring as a player.
He never even won a playoff series as a coach until he got to Boston -- he was on the losing end in 2003 after his Orlando Magic went up 3-1 versus the Pistons -- and he waited four years to do that. But when he did win one, he won another and another and, finally, he finished the race in 2008.
Now, there are races and there are Races. The Celtics have an opportunity to finish a race (small "r") to get one step closer to the real Race (capital R). They can take out the Atlanta Hawks with a victory on Tuesday night, ending the series in five games. As they say, the sooner the better.
It's easier said than done, of course, starting with the venue. Strange things happen to the Celtics in Philips Arena. Guys get ejected. Guys get fined $25,000 for making "menacing gestures." The Celtics played well defensively in seven of the eight quarters in the first two games and managed to win Game 2 without Rajon Rondo or Ray Allen. (After watching Rondo the past two games, you have to ask yourself: How did they do it?)
Then there's the very nature of the closeout game, the toughest win in team sports. Teams on the brink tend to play with a sense of desperation, especially at home, and the Hawks certainly qualify as desperate after their pathetic submission Sunday. "We were beaten in every phase of the game," said Hawks coach Larry Drew after the 101-79 loss.
So, yes, Atlanta most assuredly is on the brink. And while the Hawks can be clueless and aimless, they will be determined to bring this thing back to Boston and keep alive their hopes of being the ninth team in NBA history to recover from a 3-1 deficit. But it's just as critical that the Celtics come into the game with an equal sense of determination and purpose, because the stakes for them are huge if they can end it in five.
The big prize, of course, is at least three days of rest, maybe more, assuming Chicago extends the other series to a Game 6. (And when did we ever think we'd see the last 10 words of that previous sentence?)
Ray Allen, Avery Bradley and Paul Pierce are nursing injuries; Pierce was seen limping slightly as he left TD Garden. He had hurt his knee in the morning shootaround and there was some doubt about whether he'd even play. He ended up playing 17 impactful minutes, as he scored a game-best 24 points.
How beneficial would it be for those three, and everyone else for that matter, to get the extra rest? Rondo's back still requires treatment during games.
"We definitely want to try to finish the series out in Atlanta," Rondo said. "We don't want to come back here and play because, obviously, we need our rest."
Allen would love a few days to rest his troublesome right ankle. Due to early foul trouble and the flow of the game, Allen played only 19 minutes Sunday, or about half of what he played Friday, his first outing in almost a month. Allen didn't lose his shooting touch while on the sidelines -- he is shooting 52.4 percent in his two games -- but he also understands the obvious benefits of extra rest.
"Anytime you can get out of a series quicker, it's beneficial to the team moving forward," Allen said. "It could go either way, but we have veteran players, and I think for us the rest is definitely helpful."
And think of the season these guys just went through. Or maybe "endured" is a better description. There were 66 games packed into 120-something days. There was a dearth of practices. There was a plethora of injuries. The playoffs already have seen three season-ending injuries (Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis) and this series has seen Josh Smith miss a game due to a strained knee tendon.
So, diplomatic niceties aside, it behooves the Celtics to go for the jugular in Atlanta and then sit back and root for the Sixers to beat the Bulls in seven. What the Celtics do not want to do is ride on their 3-1 lead and get blown out Tuesday, giving the Hawks some idea that they actually, you know, could win this thing.
"The NBA is a weird league," Pierce said. "One game could give a team confidence." He's right about that.
Teams trailing 3-1 are 82-120 in Game 5 and ultimately eight teams came back to win the series in 7 games after being down 3-1 (8-194 series record).
Meanwhile, teams trailing 3-2 are 107-137 in Game 6 and ultimately 35 teams came back to win series in 7 games after being down 3-2 (35-209 series record).
Rivers would love to wrap it up, as well, but he is trying to take the one-game-at-a-time approach, even if his players are more forthcoming about the obvious upside of winning on Tuesday.
"You go out and play your best," Rivers said, "and if you win it, you move on. But never look at the finish line. Never even talk about the finish line. You talk about the next game and playing well."
And if you do that, you're at the finish line. You have finished the race, or at least the first race. The next race is yet to come, but it would look a lot more appealing if the Celtics went into it having had a few days to sit back in their hot tubs and not have to worry about taking planes or making baskets.
For so many reasons, Boston needs to finish off the Hawks on Tuesday.