Now it's a fight to the finish.
Or has this intense best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics become a fight to see what team can finish?
After they staved off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Pistons to secure a 106-102 victory Wednesday night in Game 5, the Celtics will take their 3-2 series lead and attempt to close out the Pistons in Game 6 tonight at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Problem is, the Celtics are winless in two Game 6s this postseason, losing in the first round at Atlanta, 103-100, and in the conference semifinals at Cleveland, 74-69.
To compound matters, the Pistons are 5-0 this postseason in games following a loss, having won twice after losses in this series.
But the Celtics, who have not been to the NBA Finals since 1987, own a 29-0 record in series in which they have led, 3-2. To extend that streak and avoid playing a seventh game for the third time in as many series, the Celtics must eliminate their end-of-game lapses of Game 5, in which a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter was eroded to a cliffhanging 1 point with 1:23 to play.
"I thought throughout the game we played well, but the fourth quarter is something we're going to have to go back and look at," said Paul Pierce after the game. "If we get ourselves in this position again in Detroit, we've got to be able to close the game out a little bit better than we did [Wednesday night]."
If they intend to close out the Pistons in the hostile environs of the Palace, the Celtics are going to require a better finishing kick than Big Brown in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, better than Ethiopian runner Dire Tune had on Boylston Street to edge Russian Alevtina Biktimirova in the women's race at the Boston Marathon, and better than IndyCar driver Scott Dixon had on the last lap of his victory in the 92d Indianapolis 500.
Asked if he was concerned about that in Game 6, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "Yeah. You know, I would like to have that same [15-point] lead going into the fourth quarter in Game 6 first. We earned that lead. So I would like to get that first, and then once we got that, we clearly have to finish better."
The Celtics shot 38.5 percent (5 of 13) in the fourth and committed five turnovers that led to 6 points for the Pistons.
"They hadn't been getting threes, besides Rasheed [Wallace], all game," Rivers said in a teleconference yesterday. "They hadn't been getting quick buckets or quick layups, and they did both during that stretch. I thought, defensively, we let down a little bit and, offensively, instead of running what we had been running to get the lead, we stopped attacking and we got kind of cautious, and you can't do that in a playoff game. You can't do that in any game."
Pierce said the Celtics became "a little passive" when the Pistons turned up the heat in the fourth quarter.
"We've got to be a little more aggressive in the fourth than we were," he said. "I thought we just kind of let the time pass away and hoping that we were going to win the game. But we've got to put forth a better effort and better execution in the fourth."
Although they snapped an 0-6 road losing streak in the playoffs at Detroit last Saturday, the Celtics return with a greater sense of confidence knowing they have won there.
"But Detroit is a great team and they know how to close it out," Rajon Rondo said after Game 5. "We are still trying to learn and close it out ourselves, so we will hopefully get off to a great start and keep our composure throughout the game."
The Celtics realize their 3-2 series advantage comes with the buffer of knowing a Game 7 at home awaits them if they don't get it done in Game 6.
"We don't want to go to a Game 7," Rivers said with a laugh. "We want to win this now, if we can. They're not going to let us win it. We're going to have to come in and take it. They've been in [do-or-die] situations before. They're a tough, mentally tough, team and we're going to have to play the game of our lives to go up there and win, but I think we're capable of doing that."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.