LOS ANGELES – When the Celtics wrapped up Game 5 and moved one win away from an unprecedented 18th championship, the jubilant Boston crowd sent them off to the West Coast for the final time this season with one last chorus of that age-old "Beat L-A!" chant.
Although Kevin Garnett and his teammates appreciate the suggestion, they know it's easier shouted than done — particularly in the playoffs, and especially on the road.
The Celtics will have to overcome their unimpressive record in closeout playoff games away from Boston to finish off the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA finals on Tuesday night.
For all their remarkable success over the past three seasons, including the 2008 title and another finals run this year, the Celtics have converted just one of their eight chances to finish a playoff series away from home.
They've got two opportunities at Staples Center, which could be the fifth building in which the Celtics have won a title at the expense of their longtime rivals — or the site of a remarkable Hollywood ending for the Lakers. If Los Angeles survives Tuesday, a champion will be crowned Thursday in Game 7.
"They're playing at home. Home is always where your heart is," Garnett said. "With the severity of the game, it's all-out on both ends for both teams. This will probably be the hardest game of the season, if not of the series, if not of everybody's career, this game coming up."
Even after winning three of the series' last four games, and even after compiling the NBA's second-best road record in the regular season (26-15), the Celtics can't be lulled into thinking they've got the Lakers on the run.
Although Boston narrowly won Game 2 at Staples Center on the strength of Ray Allen's historic 3-point shooting binge and Rajon Rondo's late-game poise, Boston knows the Lakers are 9-1 at home in the postseason, with everybody from Kobe Bryant to the Lakers' bedraggled bench playing with much more passion and confidence.
"The Lakers ... got homecourt advantage, but we've played the best all year on the road," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "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."
While the Celtics have ample reason to be confident, Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Bryant also didn't seem particularly worried before the grand finale. For all their struggles in the past four games, the Lakers realize they've usually risen to important occasions over the past three seasons — notwithstanding that 2008 finals blowout loss in Boston's clincher.
"If you look at it, they've come home and carried the 3-2 lead back," Jackson said. "It's basically home court, home court. Now we're going back to home court to win it. That's the way it's supposed to be, isn't it?"
Sure, on paper. In real life, two straight losses in Boston led to a dire series deficit for the Lakers, who hadn't even trailed in any playoff series this season. Yet Jackson even described the Lakers' locker room as "spirited" after losing Game 5 in their lowest-scoring performance of the postseason in the 92-86 loss.
For all their struggles in Boston, the Lakers realize they only have to defend their home court to win their 16th title — and these Los Angeles crowds will be far from laid-back.
"We have a challenge, obviously, down 3-2," said Bryant, who scored 38 points in Game 5 while his struggling teammates only managed 48. "We let a couple opportunities slip away, but it is what it is. Now you go home, you've got two games at home that you need to win, and you pull your boots up and get to work."
Heading into the finals, the Celtics believed they could beat the Lakers by shutting down Bryant's teammates, even if Kobe went crazy on them. After all, that's what Boston did two years ago in the finals — and so far, it's working splendidly again.
Bryant is averaging 30.2 points per game, while Pau Gasol averages 18.8 points and 10 rebounds despite glaring inconsistency in his game in Boston. That's just about it: Nobody else in purple and gold is averaging more than Andrew Bynum's 9.6 points per game.
And two straight losses undeniably have frazzled the Lakers a bit, with Bryant noticeably furious on the court while Game 5 slipped away. Even Jackson seemed a bit testier than his usual placid self, yelling at Bryant and Ron Artest during the game and later attempting to inspire his team in the fourth quarter with a false bit of information about the Celtics' propensity for blowing late-game leads.
While Jackson likely senses the biggest danger yet to his streak of 47 straight playoff series victories after winning Game 1, the Celtics sense a golden opportunity to join the Boston greats who won multiple titles while repeatedly denying the Lakers nine previous times in the NBA finals.
They've just got to finish a playoff series on the road, something they failed to do in Miami and Orlando earlier this season. While Boston's current starters have never lost a playoff series, they also haven't finished one away from TD Garden since the 2008 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit.
"It's going to have to happen if we're going to win the title," Paul Pierce said. "I mean, that would be great. I'm not going to try to jinx it right now. We've got to win one game, that's the goal, but it would be amazing if we get it done."