Dallas helps define a new type of playoff toughness

Eric Freeman

On March 31, the Lakers and Mavericks engaged in one of the weirdest fights of the NBA season. With the game well in hand for the Lakers in the fourth quarter, Jason Terry shoved Steve Blake for a hard foul, which caused Blake to pop up and yell at Terry. Several Lakers came to Blake's aid, but only Brendan Haywood really took a stand for the Mavs. On the TNT post-game show, Chris Webber said Dallas should be ashamed of themselves for not acting tougher. They appeared to be living up to their reputation of being very talented but not quite tough enough to win when it counts.

As you've probably heard by now, the Mavericks finished off a sweep of the very same Lakers on Sunday with a 122-86 mauling in Dallas. They were the better team throughout the series, both mentally and physically. They were by all accounts tougher, except they didn't have to prove it with hard fouls and trash talk. They just won.

The Mavs are not terribly different emotionally than they were at the end of March. While the team is undoubtedly more focused -- as all good teams are during the playoffs -- they play the game the same way they have the entire season: Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion are mostly there for defense, their shooters shoot, and Dirk Nowitzki does the kinds of things that have made him a star for years. No one will ever confuse them for an overtly physical squad, although Chandler has made them more imposing inside. If they're tough, it's because they're a veteran group that knows how to win games. They got in the Lakers' heads by hitting shots by playing better and not giving up, not by pushing anyone around.

Playoff toughness has always been a somewhat nebulous concept, but it's usually associated with the grit of hard fouls and standing up for teammates. When Dwyane Wade pulled down Rajon Rondo in Saturday's Celtics/Heat game, Twitter was awash with fans clamoring for someone on the Celtics to knock Wade on his butt the next time he entered the lane. The idea was that, if they weren't able to stand up for a fallen teammate, they didn't have the toughness necessary to finish off the win. Of course, Boston carried out no such retaliatory fouls and kept a double-digit lead until Rondo's inspiring return for the fourth quarter. They decided to win the game instead of getting caught up in irrelevant posturing.

The Mavericks made the same kind of choice against the Lakers, in part because they never had to retaliate -- by the time L.A. started getting ejected in Sunday's game, Dallas had proven all they needed to -- and because it's just not who they are. When the Mavs suffered embarrassing playoff defeats in the '06 Finals to Miami and the '07 first round to Golden State, they did so because they were flat-out beaten on the court. The Mavs have always been a team that wins with execution, not by grinding out games. At times, that's gotten them in trouble. But the team that outlasted the Spurs in Game 7 of the '06 conference finals is the same team that blew a 2-0 lead against the Heat a few weeks later.

After Sunday's game, Webber was on the TNT set again to discuss a blowout involving the Lakers and Mavericks. But instead of harping about one team's lack of toughness, he focused on how the the team that makes more shots is the one we call tough. That's a more reasonable outlook. Because while some teams are more physical than others, there's no one way to win a basketball game. Whatever the result, it's usually not an issue of manhood or morality. It's about which team plays better.