BOSTON -- From Paul Pierce's theatrics in Game 1 to colossal rallies in Games 2, 4 and 5, this year's NBA Finals have been all about comebacks. But can the Lakers pull off the ultimate one?
That's the question as the Lakers and Celtics get set to square off Tuesday night in Game 6. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals. The Lakers took the first step Sunday night, holding off the Celtics 103-98 in Game 5 to pull within 3-2.
But now the series shifts back to Boston, where the Celtics are 47-7 overall this season and 12-1 in the playoffs. That means the Lakers will have to win not just once but twice before a raucous Celtics crowd eager to celebrate the club's first title in 22 years.
"We just think about the next game, that's all," Kobe Bryant said.
"We've won on the road before. We've played in tough environments."
As daunting as the challenge may be, L.A. does have some things going for it. The Celtics are banged up, with center Kendrick Perkins (shoulder) unlikely to play in Game 6. Without Perkins in the middle, Lakers big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were able to play more physically in Game 5. It was a big reason for the Lakers' victory.
The status of All-Star guard Ray Allen also could be an issue after he had to leave the Staples Center immediately after Sunday night's game to tend to his toddler son, who had been hospitalized with an illness. Allen is expected to play Tuesday night, but it remains to be seen how the ordeal might affect him.
Finally, there is the matter of the quick turnaround and the coast-to-coast travel, something that would seem to favor the younger Lakers. (The Celtics were delayed leaving Los Angeles on Monday because of a mechanical problem with their plane; they arrived in Boston about 10:30 p.m. ET.)
"It's terrible, but there's nothing you can do about it," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose team is set to play in its 26th game of this postseason, an NBA record. "It's as tough [a turnaround] as you can have. I think going West to East is tougher. Sleep patterns are messed up.
"But both teams have the same issue. So it could come down to a game of mental toughness, who fights the fatigue mentally better than the other group."
Yet despite the concerns, the Celtics have good reason to believe they will be breaking out the bubbly pretty soon. The Celtics have been in control most of the series. They have kept Bryant relatively in check, dominated the backboards, won the battle of the benches and dictated the tempo.
Even when the Lakers have built up big leads, the Celtics have found a way to make it a game. Pierce (38 points) had to almost single-handedly carry his team in Game 5 because of injuries and foul trouble -- but Boston still nearly pulled out the victory against a desperate Lakers club playing before its home crowd. It took a huge steal and dunk by Bryant with 36 seconds left to save the game after the Celtics had gone on a 16-2 run to tie it late in the fourth quarter.
Like Ali against Foreman, Boston has been playing rope-a-dope with the Lakers. The Celtics erased a 24-point deficit to win in Game 4, the greatest comeback in Finals history. The Celtics trailed by 19 in the first half of Game 5, and then again by 14 in the fourth quarter, before tying it up with four-and-a-half minutes left.
When the Lakers made a huge comeback of their own from a 24-point deficit in Game 2, they couldn't get over the hump. Boston escaped with a 108-102 win.
"We feel [we're the better team]," Pierce said. "We've just got to get off to better starts. The Lakers dominated us in the first quarter the last couple of games. It's tough when you're always fighting back from big leads of 16, 17 points."
Boston also figures to get a better performance in Game 6 from Kevin Garnett. Hampered by foul trouble Sunday night, the All-Star forward managed just 13 points with four turnovers. He also missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 2:31 remaining.
"I played like garbage," Garnett said. "I can do better, and I will."
Garnett should find plenty of room to operate in Game 6. Boston's small lineup with James Posey and Eddie House is causing the Lakers all sorts of problems. In Game 4, L.A. left Boston's shooters open to swarm Pierce and Garnett -- only to get burned from three-point range. In Game 5, the Lakers stayed out on the perimeter, and Pierce took advantage of the open lanes by driving to the basket and drawing fouls (19 free throws).
At the other end, Gasol and Lamar Odom were able to do some damage in Game 5, but partly because Garnett was in foul trouble. The Lakers' big men have yet to show they can play that way when KG's not handcuffed, especially on Boston's home floor.
Meanwhile, even Bryant admits he probably won't be able to go off for 40 or 50 points with the way the Celtics are defending him.
"They're going to throw the whole kitchen sink at me," he said. "Could I force myself to get 40? Yeah. But is that better for our ball club? No. We've got guys open. I'm going to move the ball and do what I need to do."
Add it all up, and it's clear the Lakers still have a mountain to climb. The key, according to Bryant, is to focus on Game 6, not the magnitude of the task overall.
"In training camp, if you told us we'll give you two games that you have to win to win a world championship, we would have took it in a heartbeat," he said. "This is a great opportunity for us."