LOS ANGELES - Now I've seen it all.
All season long this Celtics team has done improbable things - like nobody sweeps the Texas trip, you know? - but this was the absolute showstopper. Did I really just see the Boston Celtics come from 24 points down after submitting a horror show of a first half and come back to defeat the Lakers in their own building?
I believe I did.
They did it by obliterating the Lakers by a fairly amazing 57-33 score in the second half. They did it by taking control of the game in the final six minutes, coming back from their last deficit (81-77) with a 15-6 run, capped by an icy left corner 3-pointer from James Posey, who lived up to the praise heaped upon him way back in the early part of the season by Pat Riley, who informed the Boston media that the Celtics would really come to love Posey when they saw him raining threes in the playoffs.
The 97-91 Celtics triumph gives them a 3-1 series lead and means that the 17th Boston championship, and first in 22 years, could come as early as Sunday night. But Doc Rivers doesn't want to talk about that.
"It's a great position to be in," Rivers pointed out. "But you have to win one game four times, you know what I'm saying?"
Yes, Coach, everyone knows. And everyone also knows that in order to win a championship, a team needs contributions from more than its stars, and last night's astonishing comeback was fueled by a pair of bench performers who picked a very nice time to have their best games of the playoffs.
First, there was Posey. The 6-foot-7-inch swingman threw in 18 points, 12 of which came on threes, the largest of which was that aforementioned shot from the left corner with 1:13 to go. That gave the Celtics a 92-87 lead, and if a good team is up by 5 with a little more than a minute to play, it generally knows how to close the deal.
And how about Eddie House? This guy had, in his own words, "fallen off the face of the earth" during these playoffs, racking up five DNPs and four other abbreviated situational appearances. But he never stopped working in practice, never complained (publicly, anyway), and, most importantly, never lost faith in himself. He kept telling himself that his time would come.
Last night was House's time. With 8:22 remaining in the third quarter, his team trailing by 18, Rivers made a decision. He put Posey in for P.J. Brown (who had himself replaced the injured Kendrick Perkins). A minute later, Rivers took out Rajon Rondo and put in House, which gave the Celtics a small lineup in which all five men were offensive threats. And that's the way it remained for the duration of the game.
"They were just trapping all over the floor," Rivers explained. "You know, they were trapping off Rajon, they were trapping off Perk early. I brought it up to our staff yesterday, probably a 50-50 split, and I just did it, honestly, because I thought we had to have floor spacing. Whether we made those shots from that point was up to us. But the trap stopped, the floor was spaced, and once the floor was spaced our scorers could score."
House was one of those scorers. He hit a 3-pointer as the Celtics closed the third with a ferocious 21-3 run in the final 6:04. And he hit a difficult right corner jumper with a hand in his face to give the Celtics their first (and nonrefundable) lead, 84-83, with 4:07 to play.
At that point it was rather difficult to comprehend that the Celtics had trailed in the first half by such scores as 20-6, 26-7, and 35-14 after one, or that they trailed by such scores as 37-17 and, finally, 45-21 in the second quarter.
The Lakers blasted out of the blocks with what they undoubtedly felt was a potent display of "Laker basketball." Strong defense put them in open-floor situations, and they are a superb open-floor team. The chief individual beneficiary was Lamar Odom, who has been the subject of much discussion here for his subpar play. But Odom had brought his A game to this one, scoring 15 of his 19 points and grabbing eight of his 10 rebounds in the first half.
What made the Laker halftime lead of 58-40 so interesting was the fact that it had been accomplished without a single basket from Kobe Bryant, who seemed to be quite happy in a facilitator mode. He tried his best to do it himself in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics' defense won that battle.
The stars had their moments for the Celtics. Paul Pierce got off to another rocky start, but he came alive in the second half, asserting himself with some truly powerful drives, while still keeping his head up in search of spotted-up 3-point shooters. Kevin Garnett likewise started poorly (two fouls placing him on the bench during that gruesome first quarter). He had a strong fourth quarter.
But the Amigo doing the best job was Ray Allen, who had 19 points and nine tough rebounds, and who had the honor of placing the icing on the cake with a clock-beating lefthanded drive on which he blew by Sasha Vujacic, whose carriage turned back into a pumpkin last night (1 for 9 as a follow-up of his 20-point Game 3).
The one word on everyone's lips was defense. It is the main reason the Celtics won 66 games during the regular season, and it was the best rationale for anyone to pick them to win this series. Every great comeback - and this was not only the greatest comeback win in Celtics playoff history but also the biggest known comeback in the 62-year history of the Finals - must begin and end with great defense. The last possession of the third quarter might have exemplified it all. The Lakers had absolutely nowhere to go and the possession ended with Jordan Farmar, who had beaten the first-half buzzer with a banked running three - missing the basket by about 3 feet.
So what's not to like about this team? What other questions do the Celtics need to answer? "Just great mental toughness," said Rivers. "They just hung in together. We've been preaching 'leaning in.' When things get bad, lean into each other, all year, and tonight we did."
When the playoffs started, they needed 16 wins. Now they only need one. But this one should have counted as two.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.