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It's been said the Lakers lost to Boston in the Finals last year because they weren't "tough" enough. There is no doubt that the physical presence of the Celtics from the foul line down to the basket was the difference in the 2008 Finals.The Celtics were constantly in the Lakers' faces and they effectively challenged Kobe Bryant with a variety of defensive looks, including man-to-man, the two-man trap and the two-man trap with the offside big man coming to help, which is in essence a triple-team. That is something you have to practice all year to get right; you just can't put that in anytime you please.
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ESPN Whether or not you are a tough team is not necessarily dictated by the players on your roster. It is your team's mindset and how you approach the game on defense. On the best defensive teams there is an expectation that you challenge every shot attempt if you are within a certain distance of the shooter. If you don't, you will find out about it in the film room. It's about blocking out every time and when you do commit the foul, you don't help your opponent off the floor. That was the thing in the 1970s and '80s. Back then, when you fouled hard you weren't worried that the official would call it a flagrant 1 or a flagrant 2. The goal wasn't to intentionally foul but when you did foul, you made sure to foul hard from the elbow to the wrist. You would go for the block but if you couldn't get it you would foul hard on the arm. You weren't trying to hurt anyone. You just were not allowing any layups, especially at playoff time. Even though the Lakers won five titles in the 1980s, you wouldn't consider them one of those defensively tough teams. That kind of play was more prevalent in the Eastern Conference with teams like Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New York and New Jersey. Later on the tradition was carried on by the Detroit "Bad Boys" teams, the Knicks and later the Miami Heat. They all played with that philosophy of allowing no easy baskets. That approach has been tempered in recent years by the changes in officiating and the flagrant foul calls. These days, the game is played at the top of the box and above the rim because of the widespread athleticism in the league. I like the fact the league is trying to protect the high-fliers in the game. But even in the old days it was considered taboo to hit a guy in the head or neck area deliberately. It seems like with the crackdown on hard fouls, players today don't know how to do it properly, and when they do attempt to foul hard, they may go overboard. Unfortunately, when guys are in the air to the degree they are now, when they get hit you seem to get more injuries. There is a big difference between a hard foul and trying to hurt someone. One is within the game of basketball and the other is totally unacceptable. If your goal is to intimidate, you can do that within the rules.
ESPN.com ESPN.com's Marc Stein joined ESPN Radio's Eric Winter this week to discusses the MVP race, expectations for Starbury in Boston and whether the Spurs could beat the Lakers in a seven-game series. You still have to give the Lakers a big edge. I don't think there's any question about that. They've been the class of the West, and even without Bynum, they probably have the edge. But I've believed all season long and before the season started that the Spurs were the one team that could keep the Lakers out of the Finals. The biggest issue for San Antonio is health. Manu's latest injury is to his other foot, the one he didn't have offseason surgery on. Duncan had to miss a few games because of his knee. I got to visit him recently and he basically said, "I'm not 100 percent, I know I'm not going to be 100 percent the rest of the year, so I'm going to have to deal with it." So as well as Parker's playing, Duncan and Ginobili are not going to be 100 percent come the playoffs. So the question is, are they going to be healthy enough to do what they need to do? It was clear last year. For the Lakers to win that series in five games, Ginobili was probably 50 percent efficiency, or maybe even less. That's how badly he was hurting. The good thing for the Spurs is they're much deeper than they've been in the past. They're getting production now from Mason, who's really been the best free-agent addition that anyone has made; Bonner; even George Hill, the rookie, has made some contributions. And if they can get Gooden healthy, that was a really nice pickup, because they didn't have another low-post presence that can ease the load on Duncan. If everyone is healthy or close to it, they probably have the deepest crew they've had maybe in the Duncan era. You can make that case. The problem is the Lakers are deeper and better, too. Last year, the Lakers didn't have Ariza making the contributions we've seen from him this season. So even without Bynum, you have to make the Lakers the favorite in that series. We'll see if the Spurs' experience can even things out.
For more from Stein's interview, click here
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Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol will clash underneath the boards Sunday at the Staples Center (3:30 ET, ABC).