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Dan Shaughnessy

Finally, another opportunity

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 29, 2008

We didn't have Larry Bird stealing the ball in the final five seconds. We didn't have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sucking on an oxygen mask. We didn't even have courtside fan Bill Belichick tossing a red beanbag to challenge an official's call.

But as Game 5 victories go, this was pretty thrilling. In fact, it was one of the more exciting playoff games in the New or Old Garden.

The Celtics almost blew a 17-point second-half lead but hung on to beat the Pistons, 106-102, last night. Tomorrow, they have a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years.

This was the plan last summer when Danny Ainge traded half his team for Kevin Garnett (33 points). Now the Celtics are where they want to be: on the threshold of the Finals. As they say in the radio biz, First Time-Long Time.

After five exhausting games, there is little to choose in what is emerging as an epic conference final series between these star-studded, veteran rosters.

Consider the Celtic galaxy of stars. Kendrick Perkins was downright Chamberlain-like in the first half of Game 5 and finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds. Wearing a sleeve on his non-shooting arm, Ray Allen made a big comeback with 29 points. And then there was Garnett - who might just be the Big Ticket to the Finals.

The Celtics were feeling pretty good about a 17-point, late-third-quarter lead last night, but it's never easy against the Pistons. Detroit cut the lead to a point with 8.2 seconds remaining. Nothing easy about this one.

"We made it interesting," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

"I told our guys after the game I was proud of 'em," said Detroit coach Flip Saunders. "We're not going away."

They never go away. That's one of the reasons this is such a good series.

Both teams have already won on the other's home court. Both had reason to believe they'd be representing the power conference in the NBA Finals. But neither was able to take hold of the series. And it's still not over - even though the Celtics take a 3-2 series lead into Auburn Hills.

There's always something magical about Game 5. Since the NBA switched to best-of-seven for the conference finals in 1958, there have been 22 series that went 2-2. In those series, the Game 5 winner went on to play in the Finals 19 times. The Celtics were involved in eight 2-2s and won six.

Boston's most recent 2-2 conference finals wound up in losses. In 1988, the Celtics and Pistons were 2-2. Detroit won Game 5 and went on to win in six. Six years ago, the Celtics and Nets locked up in a Game 5 that was won by New Jersey. The Nets went on to take the series in seven.

But the most memorable Game 5 was in 1987, when Bird stole a lazy Isiah Thomas pass on an inbounds play with five seconds remaining (Robert Parish pummeled Bill Laimbeer the same night). You may have seen the replay about 2 million times. It's the last time the Celtics advanced to the Finals.

"This was a huge game," said Paul Pierce. "We don't get this game, we put ourselves in a position of having to win in Detroit. This was like a Game 7 and we responded. We knew it wasn't going to be easy."

The Garden was considerably cooler than the floor of The Palace of Auburn Hills in Game 4. Both coaches and many players complained of the heat in the arena and have been assured it won't happen again tomorrow night. The Celtics claimed it was 95 degrees in their locker room - an old Red Auerbach trick.

The stars came out for Boston's big game. Belichick was seated next to the Pistons' bench and had a chance to visit with Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork along the baseline. You didn't have to look far to see John Havlicek, Penny Marshall, and Ellen Pompeo.

It was 23-23 after one. The Pistons led by 8 in the second, but the Celtics went on an 11-0 run late in the half and led, 52-46, at intermission. Perkins had 12 points and 13 rebounds in the first half.

"Perkins was great off the glass," said Saunders. "He's eatin' us up. The games they've won, he's played great games."

"He was sensational tonight," said Rivers. "Played with great energy."

Perkins kept it going after the break and the Celtics pulled away, 84-67, late in the third. Almost comfortable. The Celtics got 0 points from the bench in the first three quarters, but still led, 84-71, after three. A plethora of points.

The Pistons mounted a furious comeback in the fourth, cutting the lead to 1 on a three by Rodney Stuckey with 1:17 left. Allen canned a clutch jumper with 1:02 left to put the Celtics back up by 3. Allen then sealed it with a pair of free throws.

"That was the longest fourth quarter out of all the games we've played in," said Pierce. "I was a little disappointed. We've got to be able to close the game out better than we did tonight."

Auburn Hills. Tomorrow night.

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

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