I caught the first half of the game between the Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Hornets last night and the entire game -- entire series for that matter -- was summed up in one word -- toughness. The Nuggets have it, the Hornets are running away from it, and that is the fundamental difference between the two teams, it is the Nuggets that will have the last word when the series is over and done with.

As a player (and a not very good one), the worst insult I could ever receive was that I wasn't tough enough. Opponents, teammates, and coaches could all make fun of my shrimpy stature or lack of vertical, but nothing got me riled up more than if someone accused me of being soft. That attitude has translated into my coaching style. I don't care if people say our players lack height and size, can't shoot, can't run, etc... but I never want to hear that our players play soft, can't handle the physicality, or whine too much. The worst part of having a soft attitude is the fatalist mentality it engenders. Coaches, players all become excuse makers. Soft teams always find someone else to blame for their lack of toughness -- its the refs fault for not blowing the whistle, or the cliched "dirty play" usage. Teams that play tough always have the psychological advantage, which is why toughness -- physical and mental -- is so important in all sports.

Consider the following quotes. Here is one from Hornets head coach Byron Scott complaining about Nuggets guard Dahnte Jones physical defense on Hornets guard Chris Paul after the Game 1 loss:

I can appreciate anybody that plays hard, but when you get to the point where you're being a little dirty, that's the thing that kind of aggravates me. Being that I played in this league, I know how tough that is. But when you get to the point where you're being a little dirty then I don't appreciate that -- and I don't respect it.
In a different interview also after Game 1, Scott contradicts himself when he explains how the current NBA isn't nearly as physical as when he played (which I agree with) and that they should go back to that physicality:
This is still pitty-pat basketball to me. This is not physical and aggressive basketball the way it was in the '80s and '90s. This is so watered down compared to then that it's unbelievable. I wish they would go back to some of those rules from the '90s. It would separate the men from the boys.
Now this is a quote from Nuggets head coach George Karl after Game 2 responding to a question on the difference between physicality and "dirty play":
Usually winning and losing. The winning team thinks you're physical and the losing team thinks you're dirty. Playoff series can get intense and it might already be to the point that they don't like us and we don't like them. And that's the way it should be.
And another quote from Karl, also after Game 2 talking about how he expected the Hornets to respond to the physical play:
They’re going to be very angry and very physical. The game got a little more chippy tonight. It seemed like they were trying to tease us into mistakes and I’m sure it’s going to continue on the road. Coach (Byron) Scott is obviously upset with the physicality of the game and we’ll see where it goes.

Now, if you are a player for the Hornets and the Nuggets, how do you think you would respond given the different attitudes of your coaches? If you are a Hornet, you are probably thinking its OK to whine to the refs about rough play. If you are a Nugget, you are prepared to step up and maintain that psychological advantage.

For more ideas to incorporate toughness into your practices, check out Phil Martelli's DVD on Building Toughness in Practices. Coach Martelli is the head coach of St. Joseph's University. Discuss this and the rest of your favorite basketball topics at the X's and O's Basketball Forum.