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Theirs for the taking

The Celtics are good enough, but do they want it enough?

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Six Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We have long known that the Celtics have had enough talent to win a championship.

This was at least part of our frustration with the way the last season played out, as well as the first half of this season. We knew these guys could play better than they were playing, but all we got from them was talk, talk, talk.

Then, around the end of January, something clicked into place, and the team started to replace talk with action. Since then, the Celtics have been arguably the best team in the NBA—and while deadline trades made the team better, Boston had already turned a corner.

It could be fairly argued that this implies that the C’s were more or less the best team in the NBA from the get-go, and that the obstacle for the first half of the season was more mental than physical. Of course, as Yogi Berra once said, “90 percent of the game is mental—the other half is physical.”

Well, we find the C’s in a Game 7 situation, and the challenge Boston faces tonight is not physical. It’s not a question of talent. The C’s have more than enough talent—thanks to extremely sound personnel moves by both Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens.

The problem is, once again, mental. The Celtics have every physical tool required to dominate the Heat, as the team’s three wins in the series demonstrate.

A berth in The NBA Finals is there for the taking.

And that’s just it.

The C’s will have to take that spot in The Finals. Miami is not going to give it to them.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Until you win the last game of the season, there’s always someone else in your way. Some other team that is packed with talented players just like yours, some other team that wants the same thing you want. And only one team is going to win that last game of the season.

The difference comes down to preparation, it comes down to talent, but it also comes down to mental toughness. In fact, by the time The Finals roll around, preparation and talent for both teams are often about equal, and the difference comes down to mentality.

The C’s mid-60’s dynasty was pushed to the breaking point many times, but they won out over and over again. Now granted, some of those wins could be chalked up to chance, but not all of them. To win, instead of lose, that many times, that often, that’s a testament to the mindset of those teams.

There is a certain — within the sidelines and subject to the rules — brutality involved in ending another team’s season. It is not a task for the faint-hearted. Bill Russell was nowhere near the athlete that Wilt Chamberlain was. Years ago, Bill Walton was pilloried for saying that Michael Jordan was not the most gifted athlete he ever saw, but I never understood why people took issue with what he said. He was right.

It wasn’t Jordan’s athleticism that made him go 6-0 in the Finals, it wasn’t Russell’s athleticism that won him thirteen college and professional championships in fifteen years. Yeah, both of these guys were incredibly gifted athletes… but that’s the price of entry in the NBA. Nobody gets through the door without being head and shoulders above the rest of us in terms of athleticism.

Referee Separating Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell

What separated Russell from Wilt was this: Bill Russell puked before big games. Wilt didn’t. Russell retired when he couldn’t muster the anger he needed to go out and dominate his opponents — whoever they were.

And that’s what the Celtics need tonight. They need to not just believe they’re good enough to win, they need to go out there with the desire to demonstrate to the rest of the world what they think themselves to be. They need to be committed, no matter how hard they have to work, to prove to the rest of us what they’re made of. And in so doing, they’ll prove who they are to themselves as well. It’s all good and well to think that you should win a game. You can have — or claim to have — all the confidence in the world, but in back of that, always, there’s going to be this nagging thread of doubt… ‘but can you really?’ The only way you’ll know for sure is by going out and doing it.

The Celtics, at least on paper, have everything they need to win their 18th championship. If you ran their recent performance stats through computer simulations of tonight’s game and a seven game series with Golden State, the C’s would put in a creditable performance.

But here’s the thing: computer simulations don’t care about the results. Heck, that’s why in some cases they’re more reliable than human calculations.

But that’s what matters tonight. How much do the Celtics care about winning? How badly do they want to join the legends in the most storied franchise in the NBA? How badly do they want to prove to themselves that they are as good as they think they are?

To quote Ringo Starr, Banner 18 is “here within your reach, if you’re big enough to take it.”