The second-seeded Celtics surely need to approach Game 6 with a do-or-die mentality. Of course, the defending champions hold a 3-2 lead, with a seventh game scheduled for their home court Saturday if need be. But they can't afford to let things slide that far. Four of these enervating games have been decided by three points or fewer, and a postseason-record three of them have gone into one or more overtimes. If the Bulls are able to hold serve Thursday, who knows what may happen next. They may tip off Saturday and not finish until Monday.
A few themes from the Celtics' provocative 106-104 win in Game 5 on Tuesday will tide into Game 6. After declining to double-team Pierce, who torched John Salmons or Derrick Rose for four jumpers off the dribble in the last moments of regulation and OT, will the Bulls try to trap the ball out of his hands this time? Careful there: They can afford that strategy only in the unlikely event that Ray Allen has again fouled out, as he did midway through the fourth quarter Tuesday. Allen has hit a number of big shots this year while sprinting away from double teams of Pierce, and the ball has rotated his way for open threes much as it did at the end of Game 2 when Allen beat the Bulls with 2.2 seconds remaining.
Will the Celtics be able to muzzle the three-guard rotation of Ben Gordon, Rose and Kirk Hinrich? Gordon has been a revelation with his audacious shooting in the most crucial moments, regardless of double teams or the strained hamstring that made him a "game-time decision" (just before he proceeded to play 51 minutes Tuesday -- oh, to be young and playing for a new contract). Rose's command of the open floor has enabled the Bulls to quickly puncture any single-digit lead created by the Celtics. But Hinrich's value as sixth man should not be undersold, for he gives Chicago scoring off the bench (19 points Tuesday) that the depleted Celtics have yet to realize from Stephon Marbury or Eddie House.
"I think [if] we shut Kirk Hinrich down, we can close out the series," said Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, whohad 16 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks in Game 5.
A word needs to be added about the Bulls' toughness. They lack injured small forward Luol Deng, regarded as their No. 2 talent after Rose, and Gordon struggled for three-and-a-half quarters Tuesday while playing through his injury. But Gordon found his rhythm when the Bulls needed him most, and altogether Chicago has exhibited poise and confidence unusual of a young team in the closing moments of playoff games against the NBA champions.
That's why it's once again up to the Celtics' remarkable point guard, Rajon Rondo (who is averaging a postseason triple-double of 24.2 points, 10.2 assists and 10.2 rebounds), to seize control and prevent the underdog from forcing a Game 7. By attacking the basket off the dribble and softening the Bulls' defense, as he did when Boston was desperate for points during its Game 5 comeback, Rondo essentially gives the Celtics the inside presence offensively that they're missing without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe.
Rondo's drives should create space for Pierce and Allen, who also are advised to up-fake and drive the ball into the paint for short pull-ups or free throws. If, on the other hand, the Celtics go into Chicago expecting to win based on the perimeter shooting of Pierce and Allen, then they might as well start preparing for a Game 7.