Sixth sense about tonight
WALTHAM — As game time approached Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the public-address announcer asked the sellout crowd to rise and wave their “All Together’’ towels. The fans obliged, and the scene resembled a raging snowstorm as the Cleveland faithful sought to motivate their inconsistent team.
That was not lost on Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who moments after the Celtics’ 120-88 victory said he did not want to return to face a Game 7 atmosphere in Cleveland, when there would be so much at stake for the Cavaliers.
The amateur oddsmakers who predicted that LeBron James would return to Cleveland next season and not bolt for the riches of New York, New Jersey, and Chicago are reconsidering their stance. The Cavaliers played an unmotivated Game 5, though the Celtics realize their psyche could change with a win in Game 6 tonight at TD Garden. That would give the Cavs a chance to secure the series — and perhaps the promising future of Cleveland basketball.
The Celtics are fully aware of their inconsistencies at home this season, including a 124-95 Game 3 loss following a sparkling Game 2 performance. So there was no hint of glee during practice at the Sports Authority Training Center yesterday. They recognize that a loss tonight immediately hands the Cavaliers the edge and the home-court advantage.
“Listen, we have one home game left in this series,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “We haven’t done anything and we’ve made that clear. And you know you are going to get Cleveland’s best shot. LeBron [James] is going to play an amazing game and we’re going to have to be able to absorb that and still win the game. I don’t even like hearing guys talk about ‘closing out.’ That doesn’t mean anything. You’ve still got to the play the game.’’
The opportunity to capitalize on the Game 2 performance was ruined by a slow start in Game 3, as the Celtics trailed, 36-17, after the first quarter. After a three-day break, minor injuries to Garnett and Kendrick Perkins, and two poor practices, the Celtics stumbled into that game unprepared and lethargic. Such a beginning tonight could squander Tuesday’s standout performance and go a long way toward ending their season.
“Yeah, it’s like our Game 7 coming up,’’ said Perkins. “We don’t want to go back to Cleveland. I think we’ve just got to come out with the right focus, right mind-set, and just play our game.’’
The Celtics were in a somewhat similar situation last season, leading three games to two against the Magic before dropping Game 6 in Orlando, 83-75, and then Game 7 in Boston, 101-82. Of course, they were without Garnett, who has been a major factor in the Cleveland series.
He is averaging 18.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, shooting 50 percent, and has completely overwhelmed Antawn Jamison. Rivers has exploited two matchups: Garnett against Jamison and Rajon Rondo against Mo Williams.
Garnett’s presence has stabilized the Celtics in the postseason. Not only is he healthy, but he has served as team leader and voice of reason. After Perkins barked at officials following a foul call on Shaquille O’Neal Tuesday, Garnett pulled Perkins aside and told him to remain focused.
And it is Garnett who has set the tone for Game 6, declaring it just as critical to the Celtics as it is to Cleveland.
“This team has gone through a lot of stuff, and that’s good for us,’’ Rivers said. “Everybody was making a big deal about Kevin being on the bench [last season]. Nobody listens to a guy, a player that’s not dressed.
“So obviously his impact is better now that he is in uniform.’’
And Garnett’s whisper-quiet voice has been loud enough to make teammates understand the significance of Game 6. When they are motivated and focused, the Celtics are an elite team. When they lack concentration and precision, they are an also-ran.
Rivers and Garnett are banking that the rest of the roster takes on that sense of urgency tonight. The Celtics have been a superior team on the road all season, but now they must show that home is indeed an advantage. That hasn’t always been the case.
“We’ve got to win this game,’’ forward Glen Davis said. “And we have to show the fans we can defend our court. We’ve got to close it out, make sure we do the little things, match their intensity.
“That’s the way we have to go at it, Game 7. We have to look at this game like it’s our last.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.