Two years ago in the playoffs, the Suns’ Joe Johnson got his face broken in a game against Dallas. He coolly got up and shot free throws. The Suns responded in the next game with a gutty comeback. Still, they were called “soft.”

Raja Bell and the Suns showed toughness despite their Game 5 loss to the Spurs on Wednesday night.
(NBAE Photos)

Last season, the Suns ran to the Western Conference Finals without Amaré Stoudemire and, for the most part, Kurt Thomas, and overcame a suspension at a critical time against Raja Bell, who would later play through a painful calf injury. Still, they were called “soft.”

Last night, the Suns ignored suspensions to Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw and played one of the grittiest games I’ve ever seen, leading the nearly-full-strength Spurs for 43 minutes before running out of gas. It was, by any measure, a heroic stand by a severely undermanned team. And though the Suns fell just short, if their efforts last night didn’t wash away the dreaded “soft” label once and for all, I don’t know what will.

For as long as I can remember, literally, “Suns” and “soft” have been linked together in NBA conversations. Going back to the MacLeod Era, when the Suns started an undersized center at the high post, and their offense was predicated on fast breaks and pinpoint passing, they were characterized as “pretty,” just another word for “soft.” It was a characterization that led the Suns to trade for noted tough guys like Truck Robinson and Xavier McDaniel. Didn’t help.

In 1992, the Suns acquired one of the toughest men ever to play the game, Charles Barkley. Hoops watchers shook their heads in disdain at the Suns teams that followed over the next few years. “Chuck is tough,” they said. “The Suns aren’t.”

The “Bad Boy” Pistons of the late 1980s and early 1990s were considered tough. They bludgeoned, clubbed, mugged and didn’t care how many flagrant fouls and ejections they ran up so long as they won. The Knicks of the mid-1990s were considered tough. They turned “winning ugly” into a popular phrase, setting Slob Screens and mowing down opponents with elbows and knees.

That’s not the kind of tough I want my team to be. I want my team’s definitions of tough to be, “won’t back down from a challenge,” and, “faces adversity and ratchets up the effort when it’s needed most.” I want their toughness to come from playing hard, playing well, and playing honorably. I want their toughness to be in their hearts as well as their biceps.

“Tough” should be Kurt Thomas playing more minutes last night than in any game since anyone can remember, spending most of it isolated on one of the best players in the league, and contributing not only on defense, holding that player to a sub-par game, but providing stellar efforts on offense and on the glass, all the while remaining out of foul trouble.

“Tough” should be Shawn Marion, overcoming a reputation for playoff inconsistency, turning in a double-double in the first half, when the team had trouble scoring as a whole, when the team absolutely needed him the most.

“Tough” should be Steve Nash, having already taken six stitches to his nose, a knee to the groin, and a scorer’s table upside the head, still darting again and again into the heart of the best defense in the NBA, coming out with his own double-double.

“Tough” should be the fact that none of these players, nor anyone else who played for the Suns last night, blamed their loss on the absence of one of their best players and one of their top reserves.

Using those definitions as standards, last night, the Suns proved themselves once and for all to be as tough as anyone could want. And the final score doesn’t impact that a bit.

Don’t agree? Tough.

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