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Dan Shaughnessy

Back here, they feel safe

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 15, 2008

Who needs walkthrough tapes when you have home-court advantage?

In today's NBA, winning a home playoff game is like creating your own blog - anybody can do it. The guys in the white jerseys come out on top every time. And so the Celtics stood tall last night, taking a 3-2 series lead over the Cavaliers with a 96-89 Game 5 victory at the ever-friendly Garden.

This was the best game of the series. The Celtics fell behind by 14 points in the second quarter (LeBron James scored 23 of his 35 in the half), cut the margin to 3 by intermission, and took over the game in the third quarter. Paul Pierce (29 points), Kevin Garnett (26 points, 16 rebounds), and Rajon Rondo (20 points, 13 assists, 1 turnover) came up big when things looked bleak.

Now comes the real test. Tomorrow the Celtics travel to Cleveland to take on Ma LeBron and the Cavaliers in a game that could legitimize Boston's championship candidacy and vault the Celtics into an epic conference final series with the menacing Detroit Pistons.

The battle-tested Motown machine is not likely to dissolve into a puddle on Causeway Street, so it would be a good idea for the Celtics to demonstrate they are something more than hometown front-runners. This can only be done by winning a road playoff game, which still has not happened in this postseason. Boston is 7-0 at home, 0-5 on the road in the playoffs.

"I just want to keep having opportunities to win road games," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I don't think anyone's playing very well on the road in the playoffs. We're going to get one. I don't know when. It would be great if it's Game 6, but if not, we're going to come back here."

"We can't get too high," added Pierce. "We said that all year long. We know we've got our work cut out for us as we go on the road to close this out. Enjoy tonight, but starting tomorrow we've got to look at somehow, some way closing out this series."

There has always been a fear that LeBron would take over a game and drop 50 on the Celtics' heads one of these nights. He had that look early last night, draining a pair of long-range jumpers in the first two minutes. It was the first time in the series that he came out making shots.

James scored 23 points in the first 20 minutes and the Cavaliers bolted to a 14-point lead. For a few seconds, it crossed the mind the home-court winning streak might be over. A few boos rained down from the upper deck.

That's when the Celtics went to work and took advantage of those familiar floorboards. Over the next 15 minutes, Boston outscored Cleveland, 42-16. It started with a 14-3 run at the end of the half and continued in the first 11 minutes after intermission. Cleveland committed a gang of turnovers, and a couple of treys by Rondo opened things up for Boston.

"We finished the second on a good note and it carried on into the third quarter," said Pierce.

Rondo was everywhere in the second half. And Celtic defenders put the clamps on LeBron.

"You've got to give the Celtics credit," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown. "They came out in the third quarter with aggression. That set the tone with the crowd. That was big, especially with the way they came out . . . The biggest difference tonight was Rondo. And their defensive aggression in the third quarter."

In the third quarter, the Celtics did what Boston fans hoped they would have done in the fourth quarter of Game 4. They played Belichick defense and made 12 of 16 shots. Meanwhile, exhausted LeBron was stuck on 23. He did not score until the final minute of the third, which closed with the Celtics leading, 72-63.

"In the second half, we did a better job forcing him to the double-teams," said Rivers.

A Glen Davis bucket made it 74-63 early in the third and the lead seemed secure. Cleveland threw a mini-scare into the Green in the closing minutes, but nobody really worried. Why would you worry? The Celtics were at home.

"We've got to head back to Cleveland, get ready to lace 'em up for the next game, and rock and roll for 48 minutes," said Brown.

The Celtics' next game at the Garden is Sunday. They're hoping it's Game 1 against the Pistons and not Game 7 against the Cavaliers. In either case, they're pretty sure they'll win.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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