Likewise, a player who can fight through a screen is extremely valuable at this time of year. Particularly when that person is stationed alongside Shaq, who more often than not impersonates a very large traffic cone when defending the pick-and-roll. In Miami's sweep of the New Jersey Nets, Haslem not only averaged 11.8 boards but also frequently took care of two men on defense: his own and O'Neal's.
The best example of a player who combines physicality with mobility is Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace--"the best disrupter I've ever seen," says teammate Chauncey Billups. Named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year on Monday for the third time, Wallace does everything on the interior-defense checklist: rebounding, playing one-on-one D and leaving his own man to block shots. ("Keeping a tight paint," as Seattle forward Nick Collison puts it.) But Wallace also patrols the outside, a daunting sight for smallish guards. Thanks in large part to the havoc wreaked by Wallace, Detroit held a 3-1 lead over the 76ers after a 97-92 overtime win on Sunday in Philly. Says Sixers assistant coach Lester Conner of planning to face Big Ben, "It's kind of like when offensive coordinators tried to run away from Lawrence Taylor."
Though Wallace would never be caught dead in a bustier, he is a direct heir of Dennis Rodman, a player who got into an opponent's hair and, in doing so, also got into his head. I know he's coming. Is he coming hard? Where's he coming from? "Whenever I see a guy pissed off," Evans says, "I feel like I've won." Nocioni has become that kind of distraction, too. He studiously ignores opponents, staying away from the pregame handshakes, eschewing the kind of fraternization that Bulls assistant Ron Adams calls "smoking the NBA equivalent of the peace pipe." Explains Nocioni, "This is my job. Everybody talks. I don't like it."
Bruce Bowen is aware that he doesn't win friends with his no-nonsense, never-give-in style, which was evident again on Monday as the Spurs took a 3-1 series advantage with a 126-115 overtime road victory. Along the way to becoming a great defender, Bowen realized he liked that moment when he had driven his man to the breaking point. "There are little signs you see," says the 33-year-old Bowen. "Some guys quit. Some guys start complaining to the refs. Some guys start barking at their teammates after missing a shot. It's great when I see the teammate look at him and say, 'What do you want me to do? All I did was pass you the ball.'"
Bowen relishes the strategic challenge, too. He likes to confuse a post-up player by appearing on one side of his body, then darting to the other. He gains an advantage, he says, by studying "where my man wants to go rather than where he is at the moment," then beating him to the spot. If they arrive together, Bowen will often claim the turf by adroitly "hipping" his man; it's much more subtle than an elbow and rarely draws a whistle. And if, along the way, Bowen ends up on the floor or fending off an elbow to his face, so be it. "Just part of the game," he says.
Some teams need that kind of toughness more than others. Indeed, the Phoenix Suns, who wrapped up a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies with a 123-115 win on Sunday, want to run you rather than wrestle you. But as Bowen's comrade in chaos, El Contusi�n, well knows, at this time of year, those who don't bruise usually lose. ?