Steve Nash, who had hit 57 percent of his shots in the first two games against San Antonio, including 1 of 2 three-point attempts, was explaining what happened on the last shot of Game 2, the one that didn't fall, the one that didn't tie the game and give the Phoenix Suns a chance to even the series in overtime. "Bruce Bowen switched out on me," Nash said. "I didn't have much room."
Him again. The NBA's biggest party pooper, Bruce Bowen, has his fingerprints all over the Western Conference finals even though he has scored only five points and is shooting just 20 percent. One can make the argument that Bowen is the most valuable player of the series so far. The Suns' Shawn Marion had been averaging 22.5 points per game through the first 10 games of the playoffs and had seven games of 20 points or more. He scored 38 in the Game 6 clincher on the road in Dallas. But in the two games against the Spurs, with Bowen all over him like a gnat, Marion has averaged seven points on 35 percent shooting. Give Marion a mere 15 points per game and the Suns are at least even in this series, maybe up 2-0. And because even that's not enough for Bowen, he played a smart hunch and switched off Marion and on to Nash for the last shot of Game 2 on Tuesday, and got as close to the league MVP as a man can get to a shooter without touching him.
This has been Bowen's M.O. for a while now. He does what the richest and most famous guys don't want to do: Guard the biggest scoring wingman on the other team. He's a coach's dream and a scorer's nightmare, the player Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich assigns to cover 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki one night and 6-5 Ray Allen the next.
It was the stylish Allen who called Bowen a dirty player a couple of weeks ago, to which Bowen said yesterday he was "disappointed to hear."
Vince Carter said something similar earlier, that Bowen sticks his legs underneath a shooter, forcing him to fade away or land on Bowen and risk injury. "It's not in my game and it's not in my makeup," Bowen said. But it's not like he's about to change his style of play. Tight, hands-up, annoying defense is what enabled him to settle in for a while in San Antonio after stops that included France, the CBA, France again, Miami, Boston, Philly, Chicago -- where the Bulls waived him without having him play a game -- Miami again and finally San Antonio.
He's the kid who grew up in Fresno, Calif., wanting not to be like Magic or James Worthy, but Michael Cooper, another skinny, smart kid who made himself invaluable to a championship team by mastering every nuance of defense and hitting three-pointers. Of course, any scoring is a bonus.
Bowen's calling card is his defense, a discipline he learned after being cut by the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury. He doesn't funnel his man to the shot blocker, doesn't cheat to come up with an inordinate amount of steals, doesn't have a body like Ron Artest to call on. Bowen is a textbook defender playing for a team that collects unassuming players who do their jobs at a championship level. Undrafted from Cal State Fullerton, Bowen has now played in all 82 games four times in the last five seasons.
Tony Massenburg, the University of Maryland alum and Spurs veteran who has played for 13 teams in 13 NBA seasons, recalled playing pickup games with Bowen in College Park some years ago. "The guys at Maryland didn't know Bruce, and he was raw offensively. They were saying, 'Well, if he can be in the NBA, I know I can be in the NBA.' And I said, 'No, you don't understand what this man does.' He's got a commitment and a tenacity and a drive to not let you get anything cheap. A lot of guys use defense as a rest period. Bruce turns it up on defense. He expends more energy. It's who he is. It's the way he's wired. You love playing with him and you hate playing against him."
So what does Massenburg make of Allen's charge that Bowen is a dirty player?
"Ray's a great player," he said. "But Bruce got the best of him mentally in that series. Ray's got the super clean image, the Grant Hill thing going. But Bruce got in his head. He gets you physically and he gets you mentally. I think his contribution to his team is still somewhat underrated."
Bowen's secret for keeping Marion under wraps through two games sounds so simple you wonder why more players can't do it. Bowen simply runs every step with Marion, like he's covering a receiver. And Nash, being a discerning passer, doesn't see Marion open, so he doesn't throw him the ball. "I want Steve not to be able to pass the ball to Shawn as freely," is the way Bowen put it. Therefore, Marion took only 17 shots in Games 1 and 2. Bowen is quick to say that Nash and Amare Stoudemire have been scoring so much that Marion is a third option.
Still, as Spurs assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo pointed out, Bowen rarely, if ever, loses Marion in traffic and doesn't let him loose for three-pointers. Marion had nine and 12 rebounds in the first two games, but no monster game of 15 or 16 as he had earlier in the playoffs. "Very few guys are willing to put the effort into it," Carlesimo said of Bowen. "He made himself."
Another Spurs assistant, Brett Brown, the team's director of player development, came in and worked Bowen at 9 o'clock in the morning for 30 minutes of private practice before the team's official practice the other day. "He needs the structure and rhythm," Brown said of Bowen's practice regimen, adding that sometimes Bowen will practice after a game. Bowen is dressed meticulously, stretches properly before every game, pays strict attention to his diet. And he puts in hundreds of practice shots per day, yet took a total of 31 in the entire six-game series against Seattle. He does nothing accidentally.
The result, finally, is some degree of recognition. Bowen, closing in on 34, made the league's all-defensive first team for the second straight season, and has been a member of that team five straight seasons. While scoring is so much more valued, it's clear as Bowen puts his signature on another playoff series that it's much more difficult to find defenders like him than it is to find the scorers he makes so miserable every spring.