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Celtics must find a way to win when they're away

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / May 10, 2008

The Cavaliers might trail the Celtics, 2-0, in the Eastern Conference semifinal series, which moves to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, but they clearly believe they'll be returning to Boston, at least judging by their dinner plans.

Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert has already made a reservation for Wednesday at Johnnie's On The Side, a restaurant a few blocks from TD Banknorth Garden.

You can't blame the Cavaliers, who host the Celtics tonight in Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena, for being confident. The Celtics have been masters of their own domain in the postseason, but on the road they've been anything but a safe bet. Boston lost all three road games in the first round against Atlanta - as the eighth seed pushed the 66-win Celtics to the brink - and will be looking for its first road win of the postseason tonight.

Failure to win at least one of the next two games will raise questions about Boston's championship credentials. The optimistic Celtics fan will point out that if Doc Rivers and Co. win all their home games in the playoffs, they'll be NBA champions, but few expect banner 17 to be raised to the rafters unless the Celtics find a way to get some victories as visitors.

"Hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "Basketball is all about learning from past mistakes. We fumbled a couple games down in Atlanta, so we're going to look at that to see what we can do better, especially on the road. The main part about playing on the road, we've got to bring a lot more energy to the game from the start. The energy we've had on the road, it's not high enough. [In the] playoffs you've got to take it to another level."

It's not as if the Celtics don't know how to win away from home. During the regular season, they posted the NBA's best road record (31-10). The biggest difference in Boston's play on the road during the postseason has been defense. The lockdown defense that has held LeBron James to 8-for-42 shooting in the first two games and Cleveland to 33.1 percent often hasn't made the trip with them.

In the three road games against the Hawks, Boston allowed Atlanta to average 100.7 points and shoot 47.6 percent. The Celtics were also outrebounded in those games by an average of 39.3-35.3. In six playoff wins at home, they've held opponents to 75.5 points per game and 35.2 percent shooting, and have averaged 43 rebounds.

"When you travel, you can't let the team beat you in transition, and no second-chance opportunities," said guard Ray Allen. "Those are backbreakers when you can keep a team from getting the points they wouldn't get, and make them play against good half-court defense. We learned a lot of lessons from the Atlanta series, and they're going to carry over for us to Cleveland."

Offensively, the Celtics have played well on the road in the postseason. They've averaged 95.7 points per game at home and 95 on the road. They've shot 45.7 percent from the field at home and 43.9 percent on the road.

Kevin Garnett (24.7 to 19.0), Paul Pierce (17.3 to 16.2), and Allen (18.0 to 12.5) are all averaging more points per game on the road.

Garnett said it's imperative the Celtics establish they can win on the road in the playoffs.

"We want to focus on trying to get this first win in Cleveland," he said. "We talked about some of the things that worked [Thursday night], obviously ball movement, rebounding, communication, and then our defense, obviously, has to be there.

"We are going into a hostile building, and we know that they play really well at home. They have a lot of confidence at home, and they play with tremendous energy at home. Easier said than done, but some way, some how, we have to carry this energy over."

Thus far in the playoffs, Cleveland is 2-1 at home. It lost Game 5 of its first-round series at home against Washington. The Cavaliers were 27-14 at home during the regular season.

The Celtics' next win in Cleveland this season will be their first. The teams split the season series, 2-2, each winning both games on its home court. However, the last time the Celtics played at Quicken Loans Arena, a 114-113 loss Feb. 5, Garnett was still out with an abdominal strain and Cleveland hadn't yet made the three-team, 11-player deal that transformed its roster.

James and the Cavaliers are hoping their crowd can provide the same boost the Garden crowd did for the Celtics.

"It's a very hostile environment," said James of the Garden. "So, it's a pretty good home-court advantage for them."

Garnett is expecting a similar environment in Cleveland, and maybe a little bit of home cooking for James.

"We're going into a hostile environment," said Garnett. "We anticipate LeBron being more aggressive at home. He's going to probably get a lot more calls at home. We've got to be steadfast and hold our ground and execute, and execute defensively. [Do that] and we give ourselves a chance."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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