Foreign territory has been a Celtic comfort

They’ve hit few bumps on road

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers doesn’t have anything hiding in the visiting locker room at Staples Center this time.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to see it again,’’ Rivers said.

When the Celtics opened the NBA Finals here, Rivers pulled out a cash-stuffed envelope he had hidden when the team played the Lakers in February, incentive for his players to get back to the venue. Now that the Celtics are a win from clinching the title, the motivation couldn’t be much clearer. The 18th championship in franchise history is at their fingertips, but to get it, they’ll have to go into the home of the defending champions and take it.

Knowing they were going into this postseason without home-court advantage, the Celtics told themselves repeatedly they were going to have to win on the road. The Celtics thrived on the road in the regular season (26-15, tied for best in the Eastern Conference) and have continued that success in the playoffs, going 6-4. Now, their season comes down to getting one more road win.

“The Lakers have played the best between us to get home-court advantage,’’ Rivers said. “But we’ve played the best all year on the road. 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 because they’re going to be great there, and we can’t expect anything else.’’

Los Angeles was 34-7 at home during the regular season, but the Lakers’ playoff history at Staples Center is slightly staggering. Since the start of the 2008 postseason, they are 29-4 at home. They have only lost once at Staples Center in these playoffs and that was in Game 2 against the Celtics, snapping a 12-game home winning streak.

Kevin Garnett’s philosophy has always been that closeout games are the most difficult. But he said figuring out how to put the Lakers away might be the greatest challenge in his 15-year career.

“They’re playing at home,’’ Garnett said. “Home is always where your heart is. And with the severity of the game, it’s all out on both ends, for both teams. This will probably be the hardest game of the season, if not of the series, if not of everybody’s career, this game coming up.’’

In this postseason, the Celtics have had two chances to finish series on the road. They had Miami in a three-games-to-none hole when Dwyane Wade exploded for 46 points at American Airlines Arena. The Celtics polished the series off at home in Game 5. They went up three games on Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, but the Magic took Game 4 at the Garden, then went back to Amway Arena and fought off elimination a second time before succumbing in Game 6 in Boston.

“It’s a huge challenge,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “I just think it’s all mental. If you want it, you’ve got to go get it. If not, nobody’s going to lay down for you. We’re on the road. We can’t expect [to be given] anything. I think we’re a confident basketball team, period. I think every guy in here’s confident we can go on the road and get one, and that’s what we’ve got to do.’’

Being so close makes it easier to zero in.

“One more,’’ Glen Davis said. “That’s all I’m thinking about: one more. What can I do for my team to win one more game?’’

“We’re up 3-2, but the other five games are in the past,’’ said Rajon Rondo. “We have to focus on one game, playing great or close to great, for 48 minutes and taking advantage of the opportunity that we have up 3-2.’’

What they can’t expect is for the Lakers to roll over. When they put Orlando and Miami away, the TD Garden crowd grew louder as the Celtics built their lead, and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy acknowledged that players start to look less at how many points they trail by and more at how many games they’re down by. In their building and in front of their crowd, the Lakers will likely fight rather than cave.

“I think they’re going to come out with a lot of intensity,’’ Perkins said. “I think they’re going to come out playing hard and playing well. We’ve just got to make sure we do a great job of staying focused and when they come out and they attack, we’ve just got to withstand it.’’

By winning their last game at the Garden, the Celtics gave themselves two chances to close out the series. But the only thing more difficult than Game 6 at Staples Center would be Game 7.

“The circumstances have been before us all playoffs,’’ Ray Allen said. “We never had home-court advantage except for the first round. We had to win on the other team’s floor. We had to beat everybody on their floor in order to advance. So we’ve been in this position before. I think the guys, mentally, are ready for it.’’

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