But they're now staring down a Lakers team that's not only a defending champion, but led by a competitor in Kobe Bryant who's dead-set on winning the fifth ring of his career.
Once again, the Celtics are the underdogs.
But they've been in this position twice before, and it hasn't stopped them yet.
Can the Celtics shock the world one more time?
It's definitely possible. Here's what they've got to do:
Don't let Kobe go off.
The Celtics can face the facts here — 30-point games are pretty much a given with Kobe at this point. He's determined to win another title and he's playing absolutely out of his mind. He's scored 30 or more in 10 of his last 11 games, including all four in L.A.'s second-round sweep of Utah. But the key for the Celtics is making sure he doesn't go too crazy. Thirty is OK, but if the guy goes off for 40 or 50, that's when you're going to have problems. Just as with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James earlier in this postseason, making him work hard and keeping his field-goal percentage down is going to be huge.
Crash those boards.
You could easily make a case that in this postseason, the three best offensive rebounders in the league have been Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Against smaller teams like Utah and Phoenix, the Lakers' offensive game plan has been simple — just keep shooting 'til you make one. It's like watching the varsity team manhandle the JV. The dominating presence of the Lakers' bigs has been carried them throughout this postseason, and it's up to the Celtics to put a stop to it. It's a team effort — Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis all have to do their part.
Keep the ball moving.
It's easy to bash the West for being a no-defense conference, but you have to give the Lakers this — in Kobe, Pau and Ron Artest, they're blessed with three great individual defenders. Pau will neutralize KG in this series, Artest will slow down Paul Pierce, and Kobe will be a nuisance for Rajon Rondo and/or Ray Allen. The Celtics won't be able to just isolate one scorer and go at it — the Lakers are too good for that. So ball movement will be key, and luckily for the Celtics, that's been their specialty all season. Keep making that extra pass, and eventually, the ball will find the right guy.
Exploit Derek Fisher.
Fish has had a great run with the Lakers and a great career. Hats off to him. But now, at 35, he's going to be the weak link in this series for a Lakers team that can't afford to have a weak link. The Celtics are too good — you can't just hide Fisher and hope the rest of the Lakers get the job done defensively. Fisher's got to guard someone, whether it's Rondo or Allen, and either way, the C's will have a mismatch to exploit. If it's Rondo, he's got to drive to the basket early and often, using his aggression to pile up the points. And if it's Allen, he's got to come off screens and get open shots to carry the Celtics to victory.
Obviously, this one's mainly for Kendrick Perkins. He's still got those six technical fouls lingering in the back of his mind, and he knows if he gets one more, he's suspended. So he's got to stay smart — he can't allow himself to lose his cool and get T'd up one more time. But it's more than just Perk — all the Celtics have to play smart basketball and avoid foul trouble. With the strength of the Laker bigs, you need all the bodies you can get. The C's can't let the refs beat them.
Run them into the ground.
The Lakers are a great team, but the Celtics are better for one reason — their depth. It's hard to win a title with only six players you can really trust in a big game, and the Lakers just might have that problem. The Lakers are going to rely on their starters for big-time minutes, and the Celtics have the ability to wear them out over the course of a long series. This is where the athleticism of Rondo, Tony Allen and maybe even Nate Robinson comes into play. Run, run, run.
You're looking at two very evenly matched teams in Boston and L.A., but the Celtics know what they need to do to vanquish the Lakers and win it all.
If they come out more confident, tougher and smarter than ever before, their chances are good.
It's not going to be easy, but in the Finals, it never is. Hard work can pay off for the Celtics — in the form of banner No. 18.