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One more win, and the Celtics are home

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / June 7, 2012
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Doc Rivers has done the X’s and O’s, and factored in intangibles and unpredictability. Now he wants the Celtics to do the math.

“We have one home game left, and that’s it in this series,’’ Rivers said during a conference call Wednesday. “We have to understand that and come with that sense of urgency.

“I think our guys get that. And you know what? So does Miami.’’

The Celtics have gained the upper hand in the Eastern Conference finals, overcoming the odds with a 94-90 win over the Heat Tuesday. The victory, the Celtics’ third on the road in the postseason, gives them a chance to close out the series in Game 6 at TD Garden Thursday night.

One more victory and the Celtics would make their third trip to the NBA Finals in five seasons. And this would be one of the most improbable advancements in franchise history, as the Celtics had a losing record halfway through the season.

Rivers’s coaching strategies and ability to manage substitutions and motivate players have made a difference throughout the playoffs. His faith in Mickael Pietrus paid off in Game 5 as Pietrus found his shooting touch and also improved the team’s athleticism and quickness defensively, plus its ability to react in improvised situations.

As Heat guard Dwyane Wade noted after the contest, “They beat us to the 50-50 balls, and that was the difference.’’

The Celtics were not winning those battles early in the series. But that changed Tuesday. When the intensity increased and the margin for error decreased in the final minutes, the Celtics were able to not only calmly execute out of timeouts, but also respond spontaneously to Miami’s sometimes spectacular shot-making and shot-blocking.

Examples included Rajon Rondo’s rebound-assist for a Pietrus 3-pointer, following a Wade block on a Brandon Bass dunk attempt; and two Paul Pierce free throws just five seconds after a successful Wade drive, the Celtics turning a Miami make into transition points.

Rivers downplayed the tactical tweaks, but he has been able to optimize the effect of what he considers “little’’ changes, which he believes cause opponents to make “big changes.’’

Most of the alterations have been defensive, Rivers pulling out all the stops to limit driving lanes for Wade and LeBron James and also counting heavily on Kevin Garnett as a guiding force and the last line of defense.

“For us, offensively, it comes down to us getting stops,’’ Rivers said. “When we get stops, we run. If they score, they can get back, and once they have their feet set, their athleticism at times overwhelms us.

“We have to score in transition and we have to score in space. And I really think the only way we do that is by getting stops.’’

After losing the first two games in this series, the Celtics have been able to dictate terms. But they had to be resourceful to withstand the Heat through most of Game 5.

“I think it’s stick with our original game plan, really,’’ Rivers said. “We’ve made adjustments which have worked and they’ve made adjustments which have worked. At the end of the day, we know who we are and we’re not going to change who we are because, really, we can’t. We don’t have enough guys to do it.

“One thing we have done, we have played small more than big. Other than that, we’ve pretty much stuck to our guns. We don’t have enough to change much, and our guys understand that.

“I think we’re resilient, we have been all year. We rarely go away, we hang in there. Our guys are very good down the stretch in games because they’ve been together.

“We didn’t play well last night, and if we don’t play better tomorrow night, we’re not going to win. I think our guys understand that.

“I don’t look at the other team much at all. I just like our guys.

“That doesn’t guarantee we’re going to win anything but our guys do believe and they execute down the stretch. And when we do that, we win, and when we don’t, we lose.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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