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On basketball

It may be now or never

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Phil Jackson has spent his coaching career using his Zen philosophy and mental tactics to encourage his teams and agitate opponents. On Sunday night, Jackson tried to twist the Lakers’ two-game skid in the NBA Finals positively.

Jackson said the Lakers simply have to defend home court to win the championship, and in the 2-3-2 format, the team without home-court advantage should have the edge heading into Game 6 because it has played more home games.

Jackson sounds as if he’s trying to boost a Lakers team struggling with confidence and unsure of its effectiveness heading into the most critical game of the series.

Jackson makes a good point, however. The pressure remains on the Celtics, who have to grind out another road win to take their 18th title back to Boston, and it was a little unsettling for Celtics fans when Paul Pierce said Sunday night that Boston has two games to get one.

That’s not the approach the Celtics should take going into tonight’s game. Each game of this series has been a series of its own, with the winner brimming with momentum and the loser reeling.

Remember when the Celtics were pounded in Game 1 after their listless effort? Or when Ray Allen in Game 2 looked like Reggie Miller circa 1995? Or when Derek Fisher was unstoppable in the fourth quarter of Game 3? Or when Big Baby’s drool was freeze-framed on sports websites after Game 4?

Those plots occurred in the past 12 days and there is potentially two more chapters to play out. This is the most dangerous game for Boston because the Lakers could regain that mental edge by registering a lopsided win.

The Lakers are going to start fast tonight, those much-maligned complements to Kobe Bryant canning open shots. Andrew Bynum is going to move around like Dwight Howard and the hamster in Ron Artest’s brain will be striding to perfection.

Jackson is asking his team to play its best game of the series to set up Game 7, and the Celtics do not want to play a Game 7 in LA with Bryant relishing a chance to cement his legacy as the greatest Laker.

Of the 15 teams that have had a 3-2 series lead in the 2-3-2 format, 13 have won the series, and 12 won Game 6. Although the Lakers are returning home, where they are 9-1 this postseason, they are in disarray. Only Bryant played with passion in Game 5 and there has to be at least a passing thought that the Lakers are cursed against the Celtics.

Yet, the Celtics have not fared well coming off big victories this postseason until Sunday. They had to win Game 5 because there was little chance of winning two straight in Los Angeles to take the series. Although they accomplished that goal, they cannot rest on their laurels just because Game 6, theoretically, is not a must win.

In reality, it is.

Close-out games are the toughest to conquer. Doc Rivers is still lamenting the 1994 Finals, when the Knicks lost Games 6 and 7 to the Houston Rockets on the road. Rivers was injured, but John Starks and Patrick Ewing won’t live down missing an opportunity to win a title needing just one win in two games.

“Bottom line is when [the Lakers] won Game 3, from that point on we felt like every game is a must game,’’ Rivers said. “We said it in Game 4, we said it again today, and we’ll say it again. That’s how we have to approach the game. We lost our wiggle room by losing that home game. The Lakers played well enough to have home-court advantage, and so it’s to their advantage. It’s going to be a challenge for us because they’re going to be great, and we’re going to have to beat them at their best because they’re going to be great there, and we can’t expect anything else.’’

The Celtics have to respond to the Lakers’ aggression. They cannot back down or rest players for Game 7 if the game gets out of hand. They can’t plan for two games in Los Angeles because they will lose that bravado, that confidence that allowed them to withstand Bryant’s furious push in Game 5.

So Game 6 is as critical to the Celtics as it is to the Lakers. The Celtics have closed out the past two series in Game 6 with the fear of Game 7 on the road hovering over them. With the 2-3-2 format, that is no longer an issue. For the first time, the Big Three-led Celtics will have to finish off an opponent away from TD Garden, and a team that has had its share of lackadaisical moments this season has to focus on the moment at hand.

That will be their most rigorous challenge this season.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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