BOSTON - The NBA's most-decorated team avoided the biggest playoff collapse in league history and earned a chance to hang an unprecedented 18th championship banner from the TD Garden rafters.
Paul Pierce had 31 points and 13 rebounds, and little-used backup Nate Robinson gave the Celtics a boost with 13 second-quarter points as Boston beat the Orlando Magic, 96-84, Friday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, earning a chance to play for a second NBA title in three years.
"Obviously, one is special," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, acknowledging that it's not enough to rank among the great teams in franchise history. "The other groups have a couple, and we would love to join that club. No one can ever take away that first one, but we want to join the other club, too."
The finals will begin Thursday in either Los Angeles or Phoenix.
The Lakers lead the Western Conference finals, three games to two, and a victory over the Suns in Game 6 on Saturday would set up the cross-coast rivals for a rematch of the 2008 Finals - and 10 other championship series from 1959 to 1987.
The Boston fans have been chanting "Beat L.A.!" since Game 3, when the Celtics cruised to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Orlando won the next two games and threatened to become the first team in the NBA - but the second in Boston this month - to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series.
The Bruins opened a 3-0 lead against the Flyers in the NHL's Eastern Conference semifinals before the Flyers rallied to win - in the very same building.
The Magic, who dressed in the same locker room where the Flyers celebrated their comeback, couldn't match it - or even force the series back to Orlando for a Game 7.
"This starting five has never lost a series, ever," Rivers said, alluding to the injury that kept Kevin Garnett out for the postseason last year and kept the new Big Three from defending its 2008 title. "We believed that, coming into the season, and we just kept believing."
Dwight Howard had 28 points and 12 rebounds as the defending East champions failed to get back to the finals. Vince Carter scored 17 points, and former St. Joseph's star Jameer Nelson finished with 11 points and four assists as he was outplayed by Boston's starting point guard, Rajon Rondo, and Robinson, his backup.