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In Game 7s, Mental Toughness Prevails

One more win and it all becomes house money.

One more victory in a seventh and decisive game, and this Celtics squad will have officially logged one of the gutsiest NBA title defenses you’ll ever see from a team unable to go back-to-back.

One more series-clinching triumph on the fabled parquet and the ’09 Celtics will stand proudly next to the ’87 outfit that so nearly and improbably repeated as champions.

While there’s a big difference between falling in the NBA Finals (as the ’87 Celtics did, to the Lakers in six) and the conference finals (as the ’09 Celtics likely will, to the Lebrons), it is undeniably remarkable how these champs have worn the crown.

To date they’ve won seven postseason games with an eight-man rotation.  The first guy off the bench has been Brian Scalabrine, Boston’s own Jackie Moon.  The energizer is Eddie House, who allegedly only gets extended minutes from his coach when he’s ready to play defense (bet he’s been hearing that one since middle school).  And then there’s the x-factor, Stephon Marbury, the guy Doc Rivers once said — to a cascade of jeers — would win his team a playoff game.

As fabulous as the starting five has been (we’ll get to Glen “Big Baby” Davis and the rest of the Fab-Five in a moment), there’s no doubt that the Green stand on the brink of another conference finals appearance thanks in part to the contributions of this unlikely triumvirate coming off the pine.

On more than one occasion in the Orlando series Scalabrine has drained huge shots to give the Celtics life.  House’s  Game 2 outburst was so decisive and executed with such precision even Jason Bourne would have been impressed.

As for Marbury, well let’s just say Doc’s comments proved prescient.  With the season on life support in a building that was already collectively dead, Steph saved the day with his 12-point onslaught in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 5.  When the Celtics and the New Garden were unconscious, Starbury was their epinephrine.

Take a minute to digest all that.

Okay, good.

Now there’s no doubt that trio has helped propel the Celtics to where they are today, but as we know,  Game 7s are when the stars must come out and seize the moment.

Orlando can say all it wants, but the fact is the Magic are not adequately prepared for what they’re going to find waiting for them at TD Banknorth Garden come Sunday night.

Dwight Howard was fantastic in Game 6, backed up his talk, but Kendrick Perkins has played him to as close of a stalemate as is possible against an All-NBA first teamer and Defensive Player of the Year.  Perk is too strong to be bullied by Superman and possesses a better repertoire of low post moves.

After an electric first-round performance from Boston’s backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, Rondo has been inconsistent and Allen has been nonexistent (save for one go-ahead trey in Game 5) vs. Orlando.  The marked edge in guard play the Celtics were supposed to have in this series has still not registered.

If I were Courtney Lee or J.J. Redick — two guys with a combined four years of experience — I would be disconcerted, to say the least, at the prospect of trying to hold down Jesus Shuttlesworth in the biggest game of my life.  And I would be downright frightened when taking into account that Allen has misfired on 31 of his 36 three-point attempts this series.

Trying to defend Ray in a long series is like playing Russian roulette: It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Ask any Celtic — considering they are most suited to answer such questions — what it takes to prevail in a Game 7, and they will tell you it’s as much a mental excursion as it is a physical test.

Big Baby has been in a groove since the beginning of the playoffs.  Shedding baby steps in favor of a quantum leap, Davis has upped his level of play exponentially in the postseason.  However it was in Game 4 that it all came together — the union of the mental and the physical — for Baby.

He came out struggling and picked up an early foul.  Early in the second quarter he turned the ball over then committed a dumb foul, which forced Rivers to pull him out.  In a sequence partly caught on the television broadcast, Davis proceeded to let out a slew of f-bombs before finding his way to the end of the bench, where he continued to mutter obscenities to himself, utterly incensed.

It’s well known how Kevin Garnett has become the mentor for Davis.  Between watching him perform throughout the playoffs and then seeing his tirade after that series of inexcusably poor plays, you started to sense that the man is channeling the exemplar.

Instead of a prolonged emotional breakdown from Baby, he instead directed his anger inward and gathered himself, then came back to hit a go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds remaining before sinking a buzzer-beating dagger for the win that tied the series at two.

Those are the kind of moments that transpire in a drawn out series, moments when one team unleashes a temporary blow that mushrooms into the psychological advantage necessary to snuff out an opponent’s season.  In the Chicago series that happened when the Celtics dismantled the Bulls on their home floor in Game 3.  The series may have turned epic, but the mental battle turned in favor of the Celtics after that game.

The same can be said of Game 4 of this series.  The Magic had it won, had the play they wanted in crunch time, executed it to perfection.  Stan Van Gundy correctly decided he was not going to let Paul Pierce beat him.  Pierce felt the double team coming and correctly decided to put the fate of HIS team in the hands of someone not named Ray.

Once Baby’s shot fell through the nylon, the mental edge swung back to the Celtics.

It took a second consecutive collapse from Orlando, some infighting and an admirable bounce-back performance in Game 6, but that all merely postponed the inevitable.  All that really mattered was the Celtics stole back home court in Game 4, along with a sizable chunk of Orlando’s mojo.

Game 5 was painful, for sure, but I guarantee you when crunch time comes on Sunday and the ante gets upped, that lost opportunity at Amway Arena is going to find its way into the subconscious of the Magic and the champs will pounce on them for the knockout blow.

When it’s all over and the Celtics are giving their postgame press conferences, you won’t have to listen too closely to pick up the gist of their explanation for how and why they improved to 4-0 in Game 7s in the last two years: mental toughness.

It’s then that they will pack up their belongings — along with that mental toughness — and head to Cleveland, where Lebron and a big pot of house money will be awaiting them.

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