Celtics: Perfect position

Scott Souza

Some of the Celtics essentially admitted it was hard to know whether to be thrilled or furious following Sunday night's NBA Finals Game 2 triumph.

On one hand, they nearly blew a 24-point lead over the final eight minutes and were in danger of making themselves a perennial punch line, while helping elevate Kobe Bryant to his much sought-after "Jordan" status with the biggest comeback in NBA playoff history.

On the other, they didn't blow the lead in the end, and now head to Los Angeles with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that has proved to be almost as insurmountable as the 24-point cushion they nearly coughed up Sunday night. Since the adoption of the 2-3-2 format, 10 of 11 teams that won the first two games went on to win the championship. Only three teams in NBA Finals history have come back from 0-2 in any format.

"We'll take the win," said James Posey following a night of wild emotional swings. "That's what it's all about at the end of the day. Of course, we're not happy how we ended. But, at the same time, we'll take it, go back to the drawing board at practice and come up with another game plan. Then we'll try to go execute it on the road."

The plan for tonight's Game 3 could be as simple as this: Do all the things you did in Game 1 and the first three-plus quarters of Game 2, but don't do the things you did in those seven petrifying minutes of the fourth. If you can follow that charge, you may not have to play another game at the TD Banknorth Garden this season.

"It's tough to say what is going to happen (in L.A.)," said Ray Allen, "but our mind-set has to be the same. We're not going to change what we've been doing."

What they've been doing is taking the fight to the Lakers and pushing even harder whenever the Lakers have shown an unwillingness to push back. After a while, Leon Powe's dunks in Game 2 seemed to be less about getting two more points and more about punishment for embarrassingly soft interior defense.

The Celtics have obvious matchup advantages at small forward (Paul Pierce), power forward (Kevin Garnett) and point guard (Rajon Rondo). Even Allen seems to be carrying Kobe Kryptonite as he drew three fouls on the MVP - two directly against Allen and one when Bryant tried fighting through a Pierce pick to get to Allen. He has arguably outplayed Bryant in all but one quarter in the series.

While Bryant leads the scoring duel among the not-so-friendly rivals, 54 points to 36, it has taken the Lakers superstar 49 shots to amass that total compared to only 24 attempts from Allen. In Game 2, Allen scored 17 points on just 11 shots in a remarkably efficient performance.

There remains little question that Bryant is the best player in the series, but the Celtics have gone a long way in two games to show that they are the better team. Their "Ubuntu" motto all season has been that the best team will win out in the end.

"We have a lot of confidence," said Rondo, whose ability to break down Lakers guards Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar at the point of attack has opened up the L.A. defense to an array of kickouts, slashes to the hoop, and perhaps most of all, endless whistles. "We've had confidence all year within this team and we're going to go out there and try to get two wins."

Short of Bryant determining that the only way his team can win is if he takes every last shot, it won't be easy for the Celtics. The Lakers were 30-11 at the Staples Center during the regular season and have won all eight playoff games there. Bryant has shot at least 50 percent at home in seven straight playoff games, including an 18-for-27 display in a 49-point effort against the Nuggets and a 16-for-30 performance in the closeout victory over the Spurs.

"They've got a nice record over there," said Kendrick Perkins. "Kobe has been unstoppable at home, so we've got our hands full."

But the Celtics have a lot going for them in their quest to win two of the next three in L.A. as well. They went an NBA-best 31-10 on the road during the regular season, and despite their monumental struggles in Atlanta and Cleveland, they won two of their final three games in Detroit. They have also beaten the Lakers four straight times (once in L.A.) this season.

More than anything, they have set a tone for the series in the first two games in Boston. If they can carry that tone into the next three games, there is every reason for their confidence.

"If we do a good job of executing our game plan on both ends of the floor and give ourselves a chance to win the basketball game, I just like those chances," Posey determined.