CLEVELAND - It's do-or-die déjà vu for the Celtics. To a point. This situation is even more dire.
The Celtics will be playing another Game 7. And it will be on a Sunday again. But instead of facing the lowly Hawks, the Celtics will be confronted with LeBron James and the defending Eastern champion Cavaliers, with the winner going to the conference finals.
The Celtics were pushed to the limit by the Cavaliers, 74-69, last night at Quicken Loans Arena. Game 7 will be tomorrow at TD Banknorth Garden. Waiting for the winner are the well-rested Pistons.
"Mentally, we feel like we are a confident team," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who had 16 points. "We've been in a Game 7 before. We feel like this is a game we let slip away. I think we're going to go home and take care of business."
Countered James, "Everybody prepares themselves to play into June, and I know I prepared myself to play into June."
After winning an NBA-best 31 road games in the regular season, Boston is winless in six attempts and 0-5 in Cleveland overall, including the regular season. The last time the East's top seed won a road game was at New York April 14. No NBA team has won a title after losing six straight road games.
The Celtics, however, are 7-0 at home during the playoffs. The Cavaliers are 0-5 in Boston. The Celtics thus hope for a repeat of the first-round climax, when they routed Atlanta, 99-65 - at the Garden, of course.
"It's going to be a great game and I'm glad it's at our place," said coach Doc Rivers.
Said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, "The group we have now is tough and resilient and they understand what it takes to win. We've faced a lot of difficult situations this year. Our guys have just found a way to win. We look forward to going to Boston and having the opportunity to play there again and win on the road."
James scored 32 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and dished 6 assists. But his teammates shot 15 of 50. The Celtics didn't shoot much better - 39.7 percent despite 25 points from Kevin Garnett.
"There are a lot of things that are frustrating, obviously," Garnett said. "[One is] when you hold a team to a pretty decent percentage as far as shooting [and lose]."
The Cavaliers had 16 offensive rebounds and scored 17 second-chance points. The Celtics had seven offensive rebounds and 2 second-chance points. Boston was outrebounded, 45-37, and was held to its lowest postseason point total ever.
"It's tough when you give up that many rebounds, that many second opportunities," Pierce said. "With the type of defense we've been playing, you know it's tough."
Boston and Cleveland both struggled and were tied at 18 at the end of the first quarter. A Garnett jumper gave the Celtics a 31-25 lead with 6:12 remaining in the second. But the Celtics fell apart and were outscored, 17-2. After a Pierce turnover, Delonte West nailed a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to give the Cavaliers a 42-33 lead. The Celtics missed their last nine shots of the half and 12 of 18 in the quarter.
"We just didn't make the extra pass," Pierce said. "We turned the ball over."
Seven quick points by James at the start of the third quarter pushed Cleveland ahead, 49-33. After missing 15 straight shots dating to the second quarter and six straight to open the third, the Celtics got a putback from Ray Allen (9 points) as they finally woke up.
A 15-2 run ending with a Pierce 3-pointer trimmed the deficit to 51-48 with 3:51 left in the third. The Cavaliers, however, finished the quarter with a 6-0 run for a 59-50 lead.
Two Pierce free throws brought Boston within 72-67 with 1:19 left. But Pierce was called for a questionable offensive foul with 49.9 seconds remaining while being guarded by James. The Celtics were called for 25 fouls, Cleveland 16. James shot 15 free throws, two more than the Celtics.
"It's just the breaks of the game," said Pierce about the foul. "You have no control over it. I thought I got fouled on it. But the refs saw it differently. You have to move on."
Allen made two free throws with 23.4 seconds left to slice Boston's deficit to 72-69. After being fouled purposely with 14.4 seconds left, Cleveland's Joe Smith sealed the game by making two free throws.
Now both teams are confident they will move on.
"It's either win or go home," said James. "I'm not ready to go home."
"It is what it is," said Garnett. "It's Game 7. We have to win at home now."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com