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Scal-a-bri-ne The P-R-O

11.18.08 at 9:24 pm ET

It was late in the game and the ball swung to Brian Scalabrine in the corner. As they have every time the ball has found him in those situations, the crowd at the Garden began to rise. At times this year this reaction has seemed to un-nerve Scalabrine and made him think just an extra second, long enough for the shot to not be available to him any more.

This time, however, it wasn’t the closing seconds of a blowout win. It was a close game against a division rival and the outcome was still very much in doubt. In other words, there was no time to think. “What we’re trying to get Scal to do is just keep the game simple,” his coach, Doc Rivers was saying after the game. “When you’re open, shoot it. If not, pass it.”

Scal was open. He shot it. And it went down. It was his third 3-pointer of the game and it was critical in the Celtics, 110-101 win over the Knicks Tuesday night.

And so, the evolution of Brian Scalabrine from scapegoat to curiosity to folk hero took another twist as everyone’s favorite reserve stepped into the starting lineup for a suspended Kevin Garnett and not only helped the Celtics win a game against the Knicks, he also made perhaps the biggest shot of the night.

“The last two games he’s been terrific,” Rivers said. “Scal’s going to help us this year. He’s such a versatile player for us now, being able to play the 3 or the 4, being able to play teams when they go small.”

In fact, Rivers had called on Scalabrine late because the Knicks had gone small, leaving Leon Powe to chase emerging second-year man Wilson Chandler, which was not the best matchup for the Celtics. That is all part of the mentality that every reserve must have if they are to survive in the league as long as Scalabrine has.

“I really believe that this team is all about being prepared,” Scalabrine said. “Everybody looks forward to an opportunity, but also understands that whatever their role is that night is their role that night.”

Scalabrine’s role has changed during his time in Boston. When he first arrived for the 2005 season, he was fresh off a five-year contract after a productive, but limited stint with New Jersey. Playing with Jason Kidd wasn’t quite like playing with rookies and journeymen, and as the main acquisition that year, Scalabrine bore the brunt of the fans frustration when the Celtics went from a playoff team to one that finished 33-49.

But slowly, over time, as the Celtics fortunes began to rise so has Scalabrine’s, and on a good team filled with players who know how to play, his ability to come in off the bench and fit seamlessly–without the benefit of regular minutes–has made him a fan favorite. That he looks vaguely like your cousin from Southie doesn’t hurt his cause, certainly, but whatever the reason, Scalabrine has emerged as an unlikely fan favorite.

The reaction from the fans who chant his name has bothered him at times. Last night he clarified his remarks somewhat saying: “I never said (I didn’t like it). I said all the chanting should be about the Celtics, not the individual.”

In his new book, Outliers, the writer Malcolm Gladwell looks at the reasons genius emerges in a select few. In many ways, Scalabrine is an outlier–a white man in a black man’s league, and somewhat amusingly, the only John McCain voter in a room full of Obamaniacs. But Scalabrine is an outlier in the same way that all NBA players are outliers. There are less than 450 basketball players in the NBA and Scalabrine’s gainful employment is no accident.

In his book, Gladwell notes that:

This idea – that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice – surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

Day after day, Scalabrine plays 1-on-1 with Sam Cassell before games. In a mostly empty arena, the two veterans put each other through the paces. Often they are drenched with sweat when they finish, and just as often it is the only action either of them will see on the court that night. Scalabrine credits the games with keeping him sharp, and raising his skill level.

That level of commitment may be genius, or it may just be being a professional in a league that demands it. As for Scal, he’d like to just keep it simple, as his coach says.

“It feels good to be out there playing,” he said. “I just want everyone to understand, we play another game on Thursday. If I don’t play a minute, it’s all good.”

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