LOS ANGELES (AFP) — On the verge of a championship they have dreamed about since childhood, leaders of the Boston Celtics are fighting the urge to celebrate prematurely, knowing the elusive crown is still a win away.
The Celtics enter Sunday's fifth game of the National Basketball Association Finals with a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the best-of-seven series, one triumph shy of their first crown since 1986 and record 17th title overall.
No team has ever squandered a 3-1 lead to lose in the NBA Finals, but that brings little comfort for Boston's star players and coach Doc Rivers, who have endured decades of playoff failure and frustration.
"The job isn't finished, but yeah, we seem a little closer to the goal. I can taste it," Celtics All-Star forward Kevin Garnett said.
"But at the same time, we know we are one win away from our goal. That's the focus. It's not a sense of overconfidence. It's just what we've got to do to close this out."
The Celtics were the second-worst team in the NBA last season at 24-58. They added Garnett and Ray Allen to join playmaker Paul Pierce and made the best one-season turnaround in NBA history, leading the league with a 66-16 record.
Pierce, 30, endured nine years of failure in Boston. Allen, 32, spent 11 seasons of frustration in Milwaukee and Seattle. Garnett, 32, went past the first playoff round only once in 12 seasons at Minnesota.
Now they are each one win shy of a crown.
"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We've got to take care of business," Allen said. "We're not going to get too worried about what's on the other side of the fence yet."
Pierce would claim a championship ring in his hometown if Boston wins on Sunday, when Americans celebrate Father's Day.
"It's a dream if I can come out here and win on Sunday," he said. "I want nothing more than that ring right now and I'm not going to get over-excited. Right now I'm just happy to be up 3-1 with a chance on Sunday to close it out.
"I want to go out there to win game five on Father's Day and then I will be able to breathe. Right now I'm waiting to exhale."
Rivers would be the first black coach to guide an NBA champion since K.C. Jones did so with Boston in 1986.
Rivers spent 13 seasons in the league as a player before retiring in 1996, making 10 trips to the playoffs without a title. He is in his ninth campaign as a coach, his fourth in Boston after being fired by Orlando in 2003.
So how good would a title feel?
"Let's win one first. Then I'll let you know," Rivers said.
Rivers, 46, worries about NBA Most Valuable Player Kobe Bryant. The Celtics, who had the best shooting defense in the NBA this season, have largely kept Bryant contained but anyone with three title rings and his skills is a threat.
"He knows how to win," Rivers said. "We know we have a lot of basketball to play because Kobe is on that team. He's the scariest player in the NBA in a lot of ways, so you're fearful of him all the time. You should be, a respectful fear."
But Rivers has a scary notion for the Lakers - the Celtics have yet to play their best for an entire game.
"We have yet to play (well over all) four quarters in my opinion and I'm sure they feel the same way," Rivers said. "I know we can play better. There's no doubt about that."
There are some cautionary notes for Boston. Forward Kendrick Perkins has an injured left shoulder and Pierce and Rajon Rondo both have nagging injuries suffered in the series.
"We're not in great physical shape. There's no doubt about that," Rivers said. "That's part of it."
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