LOS ANGELES - Staging perhaps the greatest comeback in their storied history, the Celtics recovered from a 24-point deficit on the road last night to beat the Lakers, 97-91, and take a commanding 3-1 series lead in the 62d NBA Finals.
There are New England sports fans who've been born, registered for the draft, and legally bought a beer at the Eire Pub since the last time the Celtics won an NBA title. They grew up hearing tall tales of the flags of their fathers . . . now they have a chance to see the fabled franchise win a banner for their generation.
On Father's Day.
The Celtics and Lakers play Game 5 Sunday night here in the land of air kisses and frozen smiles.
Winning 16 championships from 1957-86, the Celtics had a lot of great moments, but last night's comeback at Staples Center ranks with the best. It's right up there with Bill Russell's final game in 1969 at the Los Angeles Forum. The Lakers had not lost at home since March 28 and were 9-0 at Staples in the playoffs. The Celtics' comeback was the largest in postseason history after being down in the first quarter. The Lakers had a 21-point first-quarter lead.
"I'm happy with the win," said captain Paul Pierce. "I don't want to get overjoyed. I want to go out there and try to win Game 5 on Father's Day and then I'll be able to breathe. Right now, I'm waiting to exhale."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers cited his players' mental toughness and said, "They just hung in there together."
The vaunted troika of Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett grabbed all the headlines in this stellar season, but it was unheralded James Posey and Eddie House who made the difference down the stretch. Posey (18 points) drained a couple of stake-driving 3-pointers and House (11 points in 25 minutes) ran the offense in place of Rajon Rondo, who has a bone bruise on his left ankle.
The game was clinched when Allen pounded the ball out top, blew past Sasha Vujacic, and converted a lefthanded layup to make it 96-91 with 16.4 seconds left. Allen played the entire 48 minutes. Shades of Russell.
"I got over halfcourt and saw the shot clock winding down," said Allen. "Kevin came up and set a screen and I told him, 'Let me take him.' I looked up and [Vujacic] was behind me and I had the whole basket free and clear. It worked out."
"It [Allen's last basket] was huge," said Rivers. "It was a great call by Ray. And then him getting to the basket was huge. The layup was just tremendous."
The first 12 minutes represented a staggering demonstration of Celtic ineptitude at both ends of the floor. The Celtics shot 27 percent, getting 2 points from Pierce and a Bavarian cream doughnut (0) from Garnett. Meanwhile, the Green allowed the Lakers to make 11 of 17 from the floor. LA outrebounded Boston, 14-6.
The Celtics fell behind, 45-21, at the start of the second quarter before mounting a small comeback, cutting the lead to 13. The frightful half ended in appropriate fashion with Jordan Farmar crossing midcourt and rattling home a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to make it 58-40 at intermission. Kobe Bryant (17 points) still had only 3 points, all free throws.
"I just thought they were making plays and we were not at that point," said Rivers. "I told 'em we were getting great shots, but we would not win the game unless we defended and we made plays."
The Lakers inflated their lead to 20 again in the third before the Celtics went small and staged their furious rally. Lakers coach Phil Jackson hates timeouts - he thinks they are white flags of desperation - but he was forced to call a lot of them in the second half.
P.J. Brown's flush put the exclamation mark on Boston's 21-3 quarter-closing run, which cut the lead to 2. The Lakers scored only 15 points in the third quarter.
Leon Powe scored first in the fourth to give the game its first tie since 2-2. With 4:07 left, House hit a jumper with a hand in his face to give the Celtics their first lead (84-83). Then came a spectacular drive and bucket by Allen. It would not be his only highlight drive of the quarter.
"We've grown as a team and we're still learning," said Allen.
"This is not over," said Jackson. "The series is not over."
The Celtics have three chances to end it now. Boston has not lost three straight since February.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.