LOS ANGELES - The Celtics really wanted to celebrate in the locker room. And how could you blame them after completing possibly the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history and the Celtics’ illustrious history?
But there was no champagne in the locker room. No Larry O’Brien championship trophy. No NBA title hats or T-shirts. And Sam Cassell and James Posey, the Celtics with NBA titles on their résumés, reminded everyone that one more win is needed before they can pop bottles and get sized for championship rings.
The Celtics overcame a 24-point deficit en route to a stunning 97-91 victory over the Lakers in Game 4 last night at Staples Center.
Boston owns a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with Game 5 here Sunday. The Celtics can win their first title since 1986 with one more victory.
”I’m happy about the win,” said Paul Pierce, who scored a team-high 20 points. “But after that, Sam, Pose, you know those guys that have won championships, they said, ‘Hey, close-out games are the hardest games. If you thought this game was hard . . .’
”So, hey, I don’t want to get overjoyed. I want to go out there and try to win Game 5 on Father’s Day and then I’ll be able to breathe. Right now, I’m waiting to exhale.”
Play-by-plays were incomplete before 1971, according to the NBA, but the Elias Sports Bureau said the Celtics’ comeback is the greatest since 1971.
”Well, it’s a good position to be in,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “But you have to win one game four times. We’ve only done it three times as far as I’m concerned. But we still have to win one game and that’s the way we view it. As far as the comeback, it was a great comeback. But you don’t get anything for it.”
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who had 17 points and 10 assists, said: “It’s a huge disappointment, no doubt about it.”
The Celtics have not lost three games in a row since February.
The Lakers lost for the first time at home during the postseason, and lost for the first time at home since March 28 against Memphis.
”Our back was against the wall, but it’s just a game at a time, and that’s one thing we have to understand,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “We have to keep forcing the action because anything can happen in these situations. You just got to keep playing through it and find a way to keep succeeding as you go along. We lost that in the third quarter and left that energy out there on the floor.”
Los Angeles finished its dominating first quarter with a 21-point lead, 35-14. Sasha Vujacic’s 3-pointer with 6:45 left in the second quarter pushed the lead to 24, 45-21. Although the Celtics were able to trim the deficit to 12, they finished the first half trailing, 58-40.
”I told them [at halftime] we were getting great shots and we were going to continue to get those shots and they would go in,” said Rivers. “But we would not win the game unless we defended and we made plays. And I thought in the second half we made the plays.”
The Celtics opened the third with an 8-2 run finalized by a Kevin Garnett lay-in to slice Los Angeles’s lead to 60-48 at the 9:55 mark. Rivers went to a small lineup with Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Posey, Pierce, and Garnett with 8:22 left, and going small benefited Boston the rest of the quarter.
Two Vladimir Radmanovic free throws gave the Lakers a 20-point lead, 70-50, with 6:04 remaining, but the Celtics finished the quarter with a 21-3 run, capped by a P.J. Brown dunk with 1.7 seconds left to get within 2, 73-71.
”I felt that we got out of character at that time and they got us a little bit scattered,” Jackson said.
A lay-in by Bryant gave Los Angeles an 81-77 lead with 5:48 remaining. But Posey’s corner 3-pointer with 5:27 left trimmed it to 1, and House’s 18-foot jumper gave the Celtics their first lead of the game, at 84-83. Back-to-back lay-ins by Allen and Garnett pushed Boston ahead, 88-83, with 2:12 left.
The Celtics took an 89-85 lead after Pierce made a free throw with 1:44 remaining. After a Bryant lay-in, Posey’s 3-pointer gave Boston a 92-87 lead. But Derek Fisher followed with jumper nine seconds later to bring the Lakers within 92-89.
Pierce made two free throws with 46.8 seconds left to give Boston a 94-89 lead. Then Pau Gasol’s lay-in with 40.1 seconds left trimmed the lead to 94-91. But Allen sealed the game with a lefthanded layup with 16.4 seconds left to give Boston a 96-91 advantage.
”I just made the move and I looked up and [Vujacic] was behind me and I had the whole basket free and clear,” said Allen, who had 19 points and nine rebounds. “It worked out for me that time.”
On how he will get over the loss, Bryant said: “A lot of wine, a couple beers, a lot of shots, maybe 20 of them. And come back to work [today].”
With Posey and Cassell keeping teammates in check like kids waiting for Christmas, the Celtics are focused on getting the most important win of the season.
Garnett, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, said, “I can taste it. I think at the same time, Pose said in the locker room that we are one win away from our goal and that’s the focus. Nothing more, nothing less.”