Updated: March 14, 2009, 6:58 PM ET

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To win the title, Kobe and the Lakers will need to show some old-time Eastern Conference toughness.

Are The Lakers Tough Enough To Win It All?

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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The Lakers seemed to respond this season by playing with a new defensive intensity, but that intensity has waned in recent months. If they hope to win an NBA championship, they will have to regain the defensive toughness they displayed early on.

And this year, it's not just Boston the Lakers need to worry about. Cleveland has the depth, the defensive rotation and the shot-blocking ability to give them big problems. The Cavs' defense, combined with their improvement on the offensive end and the additions to their roster this season, will make them a challenge for any team.

A lot of the time a team's success on defense comes from the coach's philosophy, and you hear Celtics coach Doc Rivers talk about defensive effort all the time. He brought that with him to Boston and he continues to enforce it. That's a daily mentality.

When the Lakers came out of camp and when they were playing in November and December, they had a defensive swagger about them. They were intense. They rotated. They were blocking shots. The first unit was outstanding, and when they went into the four-man rotation off the bench, they would come down the floor and press and trap you. You don't have to press and trap to be a great defensive team. San Antonio has proved that for years -- the Spurs don't force a lot of turnovers and steals, but still can shut you down.

The Lakers are a great rebounding team and they can also get a lot of steals when they are working at it. But all of a sudden they seem to have lost that edge. People were asking if that was because of the loss of Andrew Bynum and Vladimir Radmonovic. But this is something you have to try hard to maintain over the course of the season. A partial explanation could be the inconsistency of Lamar Odom. He is such a great rebounder and he can be a shot-blocker when he wants to be. Whatever the reason, the Lakers' defense is nothing like it was early in the season.

The other night there was a bit of a dustup between the Lakers and the Blazers when Portland's Rudy Fernandez got knocked to the ground. Brandon Roy even said later that the Lakers only foul hard when you are beating them. That's some statement. In the old days, that would have been laughed at. But nowadays, everyone is looking for at least a flagrant 1. Players these days have no idea what truly hard fouls used to be. And back then, there were no consequences to hard fouls other than two foul shots.

You don't have to commit fouls to demonstrate your toughness, but you need to play physical basketball and have incredible intensity at both ends of the court to win in the playoffs. Time will tell if the Lakers can manage that.

ESPN analyst Hubie Brown was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2003-04.

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What Being Tough Used To Mean
By Hubie Brown

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.
Can The Spurs Beat L.A. In A Seven-Game Series?
By Marc Stein

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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Fear The Lakers
By Henry Abbott | TrueHoop

Last year, most of New England, it seemed, was irate at ESPN.com's writers, nine out of 10 (here's looking at you, Tim Legler!) of whom chose the Lakers to beat the Celtics.

We made those picks shortly after the Lakers had whomped the mighty Spurs in the Western Conference finals. At that moment -- the night of the picking -- it was hard to picture the Lakers losing a game. They had been so dominant against such a good team.

I wouldn't be shocked if the picks were similar again this year.

Here's the thing about this Lakers team: By John Hollinger's sophisticated analysis of the regular season so far, the Cavaliers are most likely to win the title this year. The Celtics are second. And the Lakers are third, at about 17 percent likely to take the top prize.

Most people consider San Antonio the consensus fourth out of four major contenders.

But for any of those teams to win, somebody will have to beat the Lakers, and none of those teams have shown they're any good at it.

The Celtics, Cavaliers and Spurs have played the Lakers a combined seven times. And between them they have one measly one-point victory. That was Jan. 14, when the Spurs, with a healthy Manu Ginobili, got the Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back and eked out a 112-111 nail-biter thanks to Roger Mason's now famous three-point play. In those seven games, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by a whopping 720-663.

The Cavaliers haven't come closer than 10 points in either of their losses to the Lakers.

Of course, there's a lot of basketball left to be played. The playoffs will weigh mightily. But you can see how it's going to be hard to pick against the Lakers in a big series.

Read the full TrueHoop post

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Offseason Changes In L.A.?
Jerry (Cleveland): A lot of people are talking about the 2010 summer, but this summer is going to be interesting as well with free agents like Kobe, Artest, Nash, Odom, Boozer, etc. My question to you is, where do you think some of these players may end up at the end of this summer?

J.A. Adande: The reason this summer isn't going to generate as much excitement is there are only three teams set up to make big offers: Detroit, Memphis and OKC. It's hard to imagine players lining up to join those teams. So there won't be the open-market frenzy we're expecting in 2010. No one imagines Kobe leaving. It's possible Odom could be gone ... but if there isn't a big contract out there, wouldn't he be better off staying with the Lakers for a little less? Boozer's going to be interesting. He might be in for a rude awakening.

Read the full Adande chat

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Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol will clash underneath the boards Sunday at the Staples Center (3:30 ET, ABC).

Ariza Gets The Nod
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Two interesting developments from the Lakers' side in Thursday night's win over the Spurs -- first, that Trevor Ariza started, and second, that the bench actually did something.

Ariza's insertion supposedly came at the insistence of Luke Walton, and was long overdue -- Ariza had been outperforming L.A.'s other small forwards all season. While there's a benefit to having a player of his type coming off the pine, it had reached the point where he needed to get starter minutes.

Interestingly enough, Walton also seemed to mix better with the second unit, which is why he requested the move. Having him space the floor as a weakside shooter wasn't scaring anybody, but his ability to pass and set up easier shots for jump-shooters like Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar makes him a better fit with that group. It worked Thursday night anyway -- L.A. got 24 points in 67 minutes from the subs on 11-of-20 shooting, supplementing a typically splendid night from the starting unit.

Read the other four Insider Gems
Phil Shakes Things Up
Lakers head coach Phil Jackson comments on Wednesday's big win over Houston, Josh Powell's contributions and the play of Luke Walton with Dr. Jack Ramsay.

Phil Joins Dr. Jack