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The Matt Harprings: The NBA’s 10 Toughest Players

By 06.30.11
Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce, Dime #5

5. Kwame Brown – Kiddin’ (Actually, imagine if Brown was strong enough mentally to be on this list? How good do you think he could’ve been?)

5. Paul Pierce – Another player who deserves to be on this list for more reasons than one. Firstly, there might be 10 players in the league who have better minds than Pierce. He’s where he is today – as arguably one of the two or three best Celtics ever – because of his focus and mental fortitude. That’s a longer way of just saying he’s really smart.

To add on to that, Pierce once came back INSANELY early from a life-threatening stabbing incident, and had people like Bob Ryan saying it was an incredible risk to take. Then all he did was go out and drop 28 points on opening night. Many people’s first thoughts might jump to his infamous “I just blew my knee out!…Wait, no I didn’t! I’m banging threes now!” situation in the 2008 Finals. But I’m just going to chalk that one up to a misunderstanding considering everything else he’s overcome throughout his career.

4. Dirk Nowitzki – Maybe it’s the awkwardness, but doesn’t it seem like Dirk is always battling something? His gait, the way he runs, the way he moves, even his signature grimaces have him coming off like a wounded solider. But he always brings it, and has transcended the stereotype of the European player. Only once in his career has Dirk’s toughness been questioned, and that was in the 2003 WCF when there were a few who went in on Dirk, saying his knee injury wasn’t severe enough to keep him out and that he should’ve fought more against management for keeping him out.

His performance in the playoffs and in the Finals this year vaulted him into a new stratosphere. He played with a torn tendon in his finger during the Finals, and while Miami’s overhyped and overblown talent wilted in the pressure, he embraced it. Kobe has sort of dominated the talk about who you want taking a game’s final shot for the last five or six years. Dirk is entering that conversation. And that’s probably the greatest test of all for mental strength.

3. Manu Ginobili – Flopping aside, I’ve learned to respect Ginobili over the years. He went from annoying to awesome. I could watch him play all day now. Remember during this postseason when Rajon Rondo was being celebrated as the next Willis Reed? “I can’t believe this! What heart! He’s playing with one arm!” Well Ginobili ACTUALLY WAS playing with one arm. And he still gave Memphis 20 a night. Ginobili doesn’t care about the critics or the love. He’s just a nasty competitor (and rarely says a word about it all).

In my opinion, he’s easily one of the toughest players who’s ever played this game.

2. Steve Nash – Who remembers the playoff game against the Spurs when Nash’s nose started running like Niagara Falls and they had to take him out? He kept running to get back in the game, and they kept pulling him out, throwing on layers of gauze pads, sending him out there looking like Leatherface. They should’ve had him star in Unbreakable. I bet someone could club him in the face and he still wouldn’t miss any time (oh wait, that’s actually already happened.)

Honestly, when the Suns eventually hang his jersey from the rafters, they might as well dab it in blood because three or four times a year, Nash ends up with some type of ish flowing from somewhere on his body.

1. Kobe Bryant – It pains me to do this. It really does, because everyone knows Kobe is my dude. I don’t want to sound like a homer. But you can’t deny it. You can accuse the media of furbishing stories and painting the man with the same brush they painted Russell Crowe in Gladiator with, but the fact is if you polled 100 NBA players right now and asked them who the toughest player in the league is, I’m betting Bryant gets the most votes.

Gary Vitti didn’t have to come out and call Kobe one of the toughest guys he’s ever been around this summer (and he’s been training Hall of Famers since before a lot of us were born). But he did, as have a host of other well-informed people. From playing with almost no cartilage in his knees to messed up fingers to the entire season on trial where he was pulling mind-boggling performances out of his butt to when he first entered the league and people didn’t think he could make it…he’s one of the tougher players this game has seen.

What do you think? Anyone I’m missing?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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