Gritty Bowen has vital role in Spurs' annual title chase
Posted: Friday June 8, 2007 7:52PM; Updated: Saturday June 9, 2007 12:25AM
SAN ANTONIO -- Bruce Bowen was watching that night last week when LeBron James scored Cleveland's last 25 across the fourth quarter and both overtimes. By his recollection, Bowen didn't feel threatened so much as he wanted to understand LeBron. The more Bowen saw, the hungrier grew his appetite to learn.
"You're not saying, 'Wow, all right, it's making me want to get at him,''' says Bowen, the best defender on the league's finest defensive team. "It's more or less an understanding that the man you're dealing with is a different type of beast now: Somebody that's able to take over the game after -- after! -- the end of regulation and carry his team. That's a situation where it really makes you pay attention to what he does, pay attention to the things that he wants. You have to study, study, study, study, so once that test comes now you're prepared.''
The opening results came back late Thursday and Bowen was cum laude for the night. James was held to 14 points (4 of 16 from the field) with four assists and six turnovers in San Antonio's 85-76 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It was premature to define the matchup based on this initial skirmish, because James surely will respond with one or more performances to make amends for his opening mistakes. For Bowen, however, it was another example of how a vagabond who spent years seeking a steady NBA paycheck has become an indispensable contributor to the league's dominant team. By next week, he might be celebrating his third championship in five years; and if so, the Spurs will gladly admit they couldn't have done it without him.
Bowen's secrets are on display for everyone to see, though few players are prepared to go to the intensive trouble of mimicking him. He defends the best opponent -- whether it was Steve Nash two rounds ago or LeBron again in Game 2 on Sunday -- long before the ball comes his way. The rules that prohibit hand-checking on the perimeter don't hinder him because he uses his body to steer his man to the baseline and into the traffic of Tim Duncan, Fabricio Oberto or any other friendly face. They're always expecting Bowen to bring company into the lane, because the Spurs' entire team defense is based on helping Bowen to contain the biggest threat.
The Cavaliers respect what Bowen did to them because they're working from a matching playbook. Cleveland coach Mike Brown applies the defensive strategies he learned while assisting San Antonio's Gregg Popovich years ago. "We have a lot of the same basic principles,'' says Cavaliers assistant Hank Egan, another former aide to Popovich. "Though their interior presence (i.e. Duncan) makes them able to funnel things in more than we do.''
Though Bowen will turn 36 the night of Game 4 Thursday in Cleveland, Egan has no doubt that his encyclopedic understanding of how to defend the league's most dynamic scorers has more than offset the minimal decay to his quickness and strength. "He used to work my summer basketball camps in San Diego,'' says Egan, who hired Bowen when he was a player for Cal-State Fullerton. "He connected very well with the kids, because he was able to not only tell them how to play defense. He was able to show them.''
"I came up in the old school,'' says the 6-foot-7 Bowen, who surrenders an inch and at least 50 pounds to James, who is listed as 6-8 and 250. "If you didn't play defense, you didn't get on the floor.'' He then made a crack about the new-school AAU system of summer games that has prevented high school coaches from teaching basketball fundamentals; James, 22, is a product of the new system. "A lot of guys played defense in college, and then they got to the NBA and their coaches said, 'You don't need to worry so much about defense anymore.'''
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