Bruce Bowen’s phone didn’t blow up on Sunday, during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Not when Zaza Pachulia made the Bowen-like, “two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout” in already-gimpy Spurs start Kawhi Leonard that in Gregg Popovich’s view stood as inappropriate, “unsportsmanlike,” and “dangerous.” Leonard, with his Spurs up 23 at the time, had to leave Game 1 with a re-sprained left ankle, as the Warriors went on to take Game 1.
No, it was on Monday that Bowen’s phone started to buzz. After Coach Pop gave his forceful rebuke of Pachulia’s style of defense, a Reddit user found a decade-old clip of Popovich defending the defensive play of Bowen from 2006. In the quotes, a frustrated Popovich vents that Bowen (who was warned by the league in a discussion Popovich was not privy to) was hounded by an NBA “just trying to cover its ass,” and that “the best (expletive) defender in this league” would “NOT change the way” he played.
Pachulia, a center who averaged 18.1 minutes per game during the regular season, is not considered among the NBA’s best defenders. Bowen, in discussing his Monday reaction with Mike Monroe at Bleacher Report, thinks the Warriors center may have crossed a line. With both feet:
“That play? I’ve watched it and, yeah, I thought he took an extra step,” he said. “Plenty of time to stop where he did, but he continued moving in that direction of Kawhi. That seems like it’s intentional and it’s definitely dangerous.”
Pachulia and even Kawhi Leonard (in the minutes following Game 1) talked their way out of assigning blame, but by Monday (with Leonard likely out for Game 2 and beyond) Popovich wanted part of attempts at nuance when it came to discussing Zaza, and his physical history with the Spurs:
“Because [Pachulia has] got this history, it can’t just be, ‘Oh, it was inadvertent. He didn’t have intent,’” Popovich said. “Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you’re texting and you end up killing someone. But you might not have intended to do that. All I care is what I saw. All I care about is what happened. And the history there exacerbates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry.”
Bowen, in talking to Monroe, reminds that the work of the feet laid bare the thoughts of the center’s brain in this instance:
“What was his intent?” Bowen said. “You can rewind something five times and convince yourself of anything. What I saw, he kept moving in that direction after he contested the shot. You know you have to let a player come down. He kept walking into that space, so, for me, that says more about the intent.”
The debate probably ends here, as there is little left to do beyond promoting more strident penalties for the already-illegal play (which Pachulia protested being whistled on), painted to discourage players from the practice. Still, if a worker like Pachulia is willing to (in the eyes of Bruce Bowen) purposefully take the slings and arrows to endanger a competitor and/or knock a superstar like Kawhi Leonard out of a playoff series, then why would a flagrant foul and/or game suspension dissuade him in the same pursuit?
What is worth banking on, according to Bruce Bowen, is the idea that the NBA can chase a player into submitting. He was so nervous after one call from the league office that the league’s best defender had his hat handed to him by rookie Adam Morrison in 2006:
“After that call, I couldn’t concentrate on how I play my game,” Bowen said. “I remember that kid from Gonzaga, Adam Morrison, got 30 on me one night because I was flustered after I got a call from Stu. I felt like I had to give him a cushion. Pop recognized there was something different about me in that game, and he asked what the heck was going on. I told him Stu had called and told me I had to be careful how I guarded, and Pop was really pissed and told me to guard how I guard. And that was that.”
Morrison indeed went off for 27 points on 12-23 shooting (don’t look at the rest of that box score, games were rough back then), after the NBA warned Bowen in response to this play:
Gregg Popovich, as BDL and many others relayed on Monday prior to Bowen’s text flurry, got his swingman right back on track (from 2006):
“So why did they call Bruce? Because it’s happened to him twice? Bruce guards an All-Star every night. If he was doing what they’re accusing him of doing, wouldn’t it have happened a higher percentage of times?
“The people who cry about it are just frustrated about having to go against Bruce.”
And now Zaza Pachulia is frustrated in hearing from Bruce, all while the Spurs play by the (technical, at the time) rules the entire way.
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