RAY ALLEN and Bruce Bowen share the same agent, and at social occasions in the off-season they have been cordial to each other, sometimes even downright friendly. That started to change, however, when Allen was traded by the Milwaukee Bucks to the Seattle Sonics in February 2003, turning what was once a twice-a-year matchup between the league's purest shooter and its best perimeter defender into a recurring and heated Western Conference rivalry. Suddenly Allen no longer appreciated the way Bowen played, referring to Bowen's defensive tactics as "sissy basketball" and almost coming to blows with him during a February 2004 loss to the Spurs. And with Seattle's unanticipated emergence as Northwest Division champion this season, the rivalry stretched into the playoffs for the first time, where it took on newfound importance.
The 6' 5", 205-pound Allen had averaged a league-high 32.4 points in the first round of the playoffs while leading the Sonics to a 4-1 series win over the Sacramento Kings. The 6' 7", 200-pound Bowen had limited Carmelo Anthony's offensive production in the Spurs' opening-round win over Denver, showing why he had finished second to Detroit center Ben Wallace in Defensive Player of the Year balloting. Bowen's exhaustive assignment in the Western Conference semifinals would be to make life miserable for Allen. This matchup would define the series.
Three days before Game 1, Allen sat on a watercooler after a practice in Seattle and enumerated his complaints about Bowen: "He pulls on you, he grabs on you, he hits your elbow every time you shoot. Whenever you've got the basketball, he'll shove you--then he'll fall. He's put out on the floor to harass me. Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] knows what [ Bowen's] doing out there: They think he's playing defense, but anybody in the league will tell you he's one guy you can't stand because of the way he's playing defense."
Bowen had little to say in response, in part because he was happy to hear that he was already in Allen's head. "I've never heard the great ones say anything like that," Bowen had said earlier in the season when told of similar complaints by Allen. "You never heard Michael Jordan say, 'Oh, John Starks doesn't play basketball.' John Starks may have been physical with him--and what did [ Jordan] do? He went and hit the gym hard and continued to play."
Retorted Allen, "I appreciate the compliment."
They had arrived at this duel from opposite poles. Allen, 29, was blessed with balance, charisma and an exceptional shooting touch. He was an All-America in his final season at UConn, has played in five NBA All-Star Games and had a starring role as the prodigious Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee's 1998 film He Got Game.
While Allen had been celebrating his selection as the No. 5 pick in the 1996 draft by Minnesota, Bowen had been trying to plot his escape from the CBA as a swingman with the Rockford (Ill.) Lightning. There would be nothing smooth about Bowen's ascension to the NBA: He had gone undrafted in 1993 after a four-year career at Cal State-Fullerton, played two seasons in France and also had two stints in Rockford before joining the Miami Heat for one game in '97. By 2001 (after stops in Boston, Philadelphia and Miami again) he had established himself as a team player who expressed his virtues at the defensive end, leading Popovich to sign him in July of that year.
Bowen has started every game he has played for the Spurs: As the defensive Mr. Outside to Tim Duncan's Mr. Inside, he has filled the thankless yet vital role of shadowing everyone from Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant to Phoenix power forward Shawn Marion to Allen, his former friend. "Bruce sets the tone for our team defensively," Popovich says. "He takes such pride in it, and all of our guys count on him locking up on somebody every night and doing the best job he can. When you count all of the games and the number of times Bruce goes out and does the same thing every night, our guys really respect it, count on it, and it's part of their personality. And from that, everything flows defensively."
Bowen's tireless methods were on display from the start of Game 1 at San Antonio's SBC Center as Allen worked to get open. The few times Allen created some space without the ball, Duncan abandoned his responsibilities inside and chased Allen to the perimeter until Bowen could catch up. Though the Spurs made their handoffs of Allen look as easy as a relay, those switches were the result of extended simulations at practice during which Mike Wilks and Linton Johnson (neither of whom was on the playoff roster) took turns pretending to be Allen to the point of exhaustion. "We had guys running around, running off screens, and they were getting winded," says Spurs backup guard Brent Barry, "so you can imagine how tired Bruce was. We had a number of rotating Ray Allens, and Bruce had to keep going--he didn't get subbed out."
Bowen and the Spurs did catch a big break in the second quarter of Game 1, when Allen accidentally crossed legs with Bowen while knifing through the lane and suffered a sprained right ankle, ending his night with eight points in 13 minutes. San Antonio reacted as if it were a pack of unhousebroken dogs set loose in an abandoned living room, doing whatever it pleased during an eight-minute, 23-2 run that dropped the Sonics into a 30-point hole. "[Ray] means to them what Timmy means to us," said a relieved Popovich. "It was huge that he wasn't there."