Listening to some of the national sports talk going over the airwaves today regarding the Celtics' victory over L.A. a couple of recurring themes emerged. One was the sudden falling of Kobe Bryant's star, and to a lesser extent Phil Jackson's. The second was an attempt at a plausible explanation for same. The one-word summary of Boston's dominance: toughness. Coming into the series Los Angeles supposedly had the best player on the court, better athletes, better shooters, and youth on their side. (All of this according to the same national media sources.) The Celtics, as the story goes, stared them down and sent them running back to mama.
While this is probably an over-simplified (and somewhat convenient) explanation, there's also a ring of truth in there. Playoff basketball gets pretty physical. It also messes with your head. Plenty of shiny, happy, skillful squads have sailed into the postseason sporting wonderful records and scoring averages only to have their lunch handed to them by a saltier crew. You can win a series pretty, but you need grit and reckless abandon to win a title. Finesse and polish won't do it alone. If this were poker you'd say that the guys who know the precise amount to bet with a suited connector versus a single-overcard bluff pre-flop are going to be successful, but the guy who bullies the table with his willingness to go all-in will still win the tournament.
I've said it a couple times before, but it bears repeating: this is one of the areas where the Blazers have question marks. Part of that is youth. Sure Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are inherently tough guys, but a major reason the Celtics as a team were willing to lay it all out there was their collective age and experience. They've seen it all before. They're not putting up with crap anymore. They know if they don't seize this moment there might not be another. The Blazers, by comparison, are going to be wide-eyed does staring at somebody's Mack Truck headlights the first time they get into serious postseason contention. "Look how gracefully we skip and how quickly we... HONK HONK!!! Splat. Wait a minute...they can do that?" But age aside, we also have to face the fact that we just don't have those guys with eye-gouging, crotch-kicking, killer instincts at this point. We have a ton of skill, some athleticism, and even a fair amount of grit. But meanness is something we lack. Even physical powerhouse Greg Oden is unlikely to develop an enforcer personality naturally. The closest guys we have--Jarrett Jack and Joel Przybilla--are also among the guys that we are most likely to part with.
Frankly I'm not sure I see any of our eventual top four or five guys (assuming you'd optimistically include Outlaw and Fernandez in that group) developing into devil-may-care, alpha-male jerkwads (on the court, of course) until late in their careers, if ever. I don't believe this quality can be learned entirely. It's mostly something you have or don't. Even to the extent it can be learned by the time experience sets in enough to push our guys to explore that side of themselves we may have already missed some prime years.
I would expect that somewhere along the line we're going to acquire at least one or two guys that fit that description. Perhaps it will be a hard-nosed point guard, a Jerome Kersey-esque small forward, or even a muscular, thuggish back-up power forward. One way or another we're going to need to bust some chops, and maybe some noses, to get to the promised land. Otherwise we're likely to end up like this year's L*kers...getting to the final table with regularity but not winning near our share of top prizes.