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How is that for a broken-down and cliched sports metaphor to open up a piece?
The fact is that there is truth expressed in it—and it gets at something that causes a worry in the pit of the stomach about this team: Does it have the right kind of experience amongst its ranks to make it hard and indestructible?
Great teams can be beaten but they cannot be broken. A loss simply means that they ran out of time to win, not that their book has been written and their story ended badly. They will go on the rest of their lives believing it was a fluke that got them, a bad circumstance or just a poor performance that they would give anything to get a chance to make right.
The three teams UCLA sent to the Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008 had this. They were beaten, once in the final game and twice in the semifinals, but not broken apart. Their attitude, their toughness and their hard plating came in the three years prior to those tournament runs, from 2003-2005.
Those players felt the embarrassing pain of a losing record in 2004 (UCLA's second in 56 seasons) and a first round NCAA tournament loss in 2005. That hurt and tarnished pride went to practice everyday with a roster of players—Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and several others—capable of feeling tremendous athletic hurt and built with a vast amount of athletic pride.
The friction of hurt and pride caused heat, and that heat made those teams hard, durable, unflappable, indestructible and set them on a mission that they focused on with a certain ruthlessness of purpose. They came up short, but they battled with absolute abandon until the axe fell.
This team has the hurt, definitely, and the disappointment; but does it have the pride and talent to turn the disappointment into something enduring? It is certainly an abstract concept, but its pitch is unmistakable and rings absolutely true in the right ear.