LOS ANGELES - You can tell that Glenn "Doc" Rivers doesn't want to say the wrong thing or convey even the most remote impression that he thinks the Celtics will win championship No. 17.
He is looking both ways before crossing any verbal street.
"As far as we are concerned," he says, "we have to win a game, and the next game is our focus . . . we have to just focus on that process. We can't look at anything more than that. I think it's very important for our team."
In other words, don't ask him what he's wearing to the parade.
The Celtics have three victories over the Lakers, but the rules clearly state you need four. And it's kind of a universal given in the world of professional sport that the fourth is the hardest to get.
I think Red Auerbach said that. Or maybe it was Dr. Naismith.
This much we know: Barring some utterly unimaginable occurrence in Game 5, 6, or 7, the game that will forever be referenced when people reminisce about how the Celtics finally secured championship No. 17 will be Game 4, a.k.a. The Great Comeback.
(Unlike Doc, I don't have to be cautious if I choose not to be. The Celtics are winning this thing, no later than Tuesday.)
In LA, of course, it will forever be known as The Great Collapse. My friend Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, who's been around here long enough to remember when there were no Laker Girls, says Game 4 represents the second-worst catastrophe in (Los Angeles) Laker history. The untoppable numero uno was the Balloon Game, the infamous Game 7 loss to the aged Celtics in 1969.
But this might be 1A. The Lakers must spend the rest of their allotted time on this planet knowing they had failed to protect a 24-point lead, on their home floor, in pretty much a must game, on a night when the only injury issues involved the other guys.
They couldn't cry home job. They were the home team. And the final stat sheet was a thing of bookkeeping beauty, with the Lakers being assessed 23 personal fouls, good for 28 Boston free throw attempts; while the visiting Celtics were assessed 24 personal fouls, good for 29 LA free throw attempts. Had the Mavericks been involved, Mark Cuban might have fired off an e-mail to the league office demanding to have an accounting for that extra Boston foul and extra Laker foul shot. But Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca seem to have accepted this imbalance with uncommonly good grace. Bravo, lads!
Speaking of which, could there have been a better way for the media and fans to get their minds off, shall we say, peripheral topics than for an all-time game to break out? This would be way beyond even the supposedly endless capacity of the NBA's infamous Manipulation Committee to orchestrate, would it not? But this game definitely had everyone emptying onto Figueroa Street talking about basketball, not that other stuff.
What distinguished this particular comeback was its orthodoxy. All too often in the modern game, a comeback, whether it's collegiate or professional, is the result of a cheap, synthetic, 3-point bombardment. Four of the 16 Boston baskets during a comeback that began with the Lakers leading by 20 at 70-50 with 6:04 remaining in the third quarter were threes. So, yes, the threes were part of the deal. But they were not the focal point of the comeback, which had far more to do with hard-nosed defense and overall half-court execution reflecting a balanced offense.
For the record, here is the breakdown of those 16 baskets
3-pointers - 4
Standard jump shots - 4
Drives - 5
Layups/dunks - 2
Fast-break layups - 1
Throw in 11 free throws and that's how you get a 47-21 closeout of the Lakers.
What coach, anywhere, any time, wouldn't love that offensive breakdown?
Any good Celtics fan will want to grab the tape. And when you do, here are some of the highlights:
Paul Pierce making a lefthanded block and retrieval of a Kobe Bryant jumper to send Ray Allen off for two free throws after a fast-break foul; Pierce's ferocious and positively Baylorish up-and-under drive for a 3-point play; Eddie House rifling a no-look pass to James Posey for a layup; P.J. Brown's emphatic quarter-ending dunk on a great Pierce feed over Kobe (you should have heard my normally businesslike colleague, Marc Spears, yell "Boom!"); House's in-your-face, go-ahead right corner jumper; Allen's acrobatic, Dr. J-like baseline reverse drive; Kevin Garnett's right-to-left stroll into the lane for a jumper that caressed the rim tenderly before gently falling through the net; Posey's nerveless left corner three to make it 92-87 with 1:13 left; and Allen's isolation abuse of Sasha Vujacic, when he made a late right-to-left cut after seeing 7-foot Pau Gasol coming, switching to the left hand, and thus using the rim as an ally to prevent Gasol from blocking his shot.
Sheer hoop bliss, all of it.
And that was just the offense. Defensive stands aren't quite as sexy, but they are equally important, and there were plenty of them. The one I'll most remember was the final LA possession of the third quarter. One frustrated Laker after another handed the ball to a teammate, with Jordan Farmar ending the period by tossing an air ball that almost landed in the lap of Will Smith.
It was one of the great wins in Celtics history, and it was, Rivers believes, made possible by the events of weeks past. Untouched by any real adversity during an idyllic regular season, the Celtics entered the playoffs with no battle scars. No one knew the dangerous ramifications of this better than Rivers, who is likely to be writing thank yous to counterparts Mike Woodson and Mike Brown for the necessary competition the Hawks and Cavaliers gave his team.
Those overmatched Hawks and Cavaliers punched, and punched hard. Had it not been for the stiff competition they offered Doc's team, the Celtics would not have been capable of winning that Game 6 in Auburn Hills, Mich., or the historic Game 4 comeback in downtown LA.
"That Game 5 against Atlanta and Game 7 against Atlanta, the Game 5 against Cleveland and the Game 7 against Cleveland, were great for us now that we won those games," Rivers maintains. "It helped our team, and it helped me see how our guys reacted in those situations as well. So if they come up again, you're better equipped to get through it."
Tomorrow's game will be the 25th of the postseason for the Celtics, and that ties a record set by the 1994 Knicks. But that team (on which an injured Doc Rivers played the role of Brian Scalabrine) lost in Game 7 to Sam Cassell's Houston Rockets. When Doc's squad wins, it will have the distinction of having worked longer and harder to achieve its goal than any other team in NBA history.
Someone can whisper that into Doc's ear when he's holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy. He's just hoping he can hold Kobe to 30 in the next game, the only game he's concerned about right now.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.