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Celtics looking for KO

Sweep in Orlando provides opening

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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A two-games-to-none lead in a best-of-seven series is that awkward margin that gives teams just enough reason to be confident but not enough reason to let their foot off the pedal. But going on the road and putting a team in a two-game hole might be just enough reason to get cocky.

In the history of the NBA, 14 teams have dug themselves out of a two-games-to-none hole to win a series. But only three teams have ever done so after dropping the first two games of a seven-game series on their home floor: the Dallas Mavericks in 2005, the Houston Rockets in 1994, and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.

After snatching two games at Amway Arena and effectively icing a Magic team that had been the hottest in the playoffs, the Celtics like the position they’re in, with Game 3 coming up Saturday night at TD Garden.

“I feel pretty good about it,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “I think this Game 3 is the most important, though. We can’t give them any hope.’’

From the Magic’s perspective, climbing out of the ditch is a daunting prospect, but not unprecedented.

Led by Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, Jeff Mullins, and Rudy LaRusso, the Warriors stole the first two games of their first-round series against Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and the Lakers on the road in 1969. After that, though, only one of the next four games was close. Los Angeles pounded the Warriors in San Francisco by double digits three times, in fact, winning the clinching Game 6, 118-78.

In the first two games of the 1994 Western Conference semifinals, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets had no answer for Charles Barkley and the Suns. Seeing Barkley explode for 34 points and 15 rebounds was one thing, but blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead almost devastated the Rockets.

“Everybody feels terrible about this,’’ coach Rudy Tomjanovich told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a very hard, depressing thing to go through.’’

The Suns, though, had been through the exact same circumstance the year before, dropping two home games in their best-of-five first-round series against the Lakers before ultimately recovering to win, three games to two.

“I’ll tell you what,’’ Barkley told the Chronicle. “We understand what the Rockets are going through. Last year, we lost our first two home games twice. So we know they’re not going to quit, because we didn’t quit. Remembering that will keep us on our guard.’’

But all the first-hand experience in the world couldn’t stop the Rockets from rallying to win the series, four games to three, before going on to beat the Knicks in the Finals.

When the Rockets went up, two games to none, on a Mavericks team that featured Michael Finley and Jason Terry in the first round in 2005, then-Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy wasn’t convinced the series was over.

“We all know [the Mavericks] have been a great road team,’’ he said to the Chronicle. “We also know why Clutch City became the moniker of the Rockets — they started out 0-2 at home, then came back and won.’’

The Mavs pushed Houston to seven games, getting 31 points from Terry and 13 from Finley in their 116-76 series-clinching win.

The Celtics aren’t expecting any letup come Saturday, but nothing is guaranteed.

“I don’t feel this team being complacent when we get home,’’ Paul Pierce said after Tuesday night’s win. “It’s a very determined, very focused group that really doesn’t want to come back here to Orlando.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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