King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Bruce Bowen, playoff hero or dirty player? The answer is yes, and will be until teams like the Suns learn how to deal with the Spurs defender.

Published May 14, 2007 4:00PM (EDT)

Surprise, surprise. A Don Nelson team is being picked apart because of its lack of a center and an inside game. Gee, who could have seen that one coming?

No team coached by Don Nelson will ever win a championship, though they're sometimes good at pulling off first-round upsets like his Golden State Warriors' win over the Dallas Mavericks this year. Eventually, all that small ball and creativity and hustle and jump shooting runs into a team that slams it down their throats like the Utah Jazz slammed it down the Warriors' throats Sunday, pounding out a 115-101 road win and a 3-1 series lead.

Those are the teams left in the later rounds of the playoffs, the ones that can pound it down your throat. The Phoenix Suns are trying to buck that too, though they're a much better team than the Warriors, and with Amare Stoudemire on the offensive end and Kurt Thomas on the defensive, they're much better prepared to at least compete on the inside.

How's that going for them against the San Antonio Spurs? We'll present our answer in the form of an interpretive dance, performed for us by Bruce Bowen of the Spurs and Steve Nash of the Suns.

In a related news item, the NBA is reviewing San Antonio's Game 3 win over Phoenix Saturday, with a fine or suspension possible for Bowen if the league determines that he kicked Nash in the nuts on purpose.

How do they investigate that, anyway? It's pretty clear what happened. Bowen kneed Nash right in the MVPs as he turned to face him. Nash had been crowding Bowen about 35 feet from the basket, a move defenders sometimes do when they want to get called for a foul for some reason, though in this case it didn't work out that way for Nash. Actually, it didn't work out for him in a couple of ways there, but he walked it off.

It you're from San Antonio you probably think Bowen was just turning around and trying to take a step and the knee was accidental. If you're from Phoenix you probably think it was the latest dirty move by one of the NBA's dirtiest players. The rest of us are probably split a little more evenly.

I think that when in doubt, you should figure Bowen meant to do it.

Search his name on YouTube for myriad clips showing that Bowen, one of the game's best defenders, makes a habit of kicking his leg out underneath a jump shooter he's guarding, in a completely unnatural, non-basketball motion the purpose of which is for the jump shooter to land on Bowen's foot, which at most results in an injury and at least makes the guy think twice about rising up on Bowen for the next jump shot.

Bowen has other gambits too. In a different but similar move earlier in the series, he kicked at the heels of Amare Stoudemire as Stoudemire went up for a dunk. Bowen was badly out of the play and had no reason to get anywhere near Stoudemire, who complained afterward that Bowen and the Spurs were dirty. That kicked the always-simmering bad feeling about Bowen's tactics on the part of opponents into this playoff season's biggest controversy.

So yeah, I think Bowen did it to Nash on purpose, and that's the end of my investigation. The NBA's investigation might come to a different conclusion, but I don't see how the methodology can be much different, except the league will ask Bowen about it.

Bowen will be flabbergasted, of course. His response to the barking that follows his dirty tricks is to put his arms out and ask, "What did I do?"

Have I mentioned that I love this guy? Seriously. He's a classic wrestling-style hero, which the NBA is pretty good at producing, and which is an entertaining breed. I still get a warm feeling when I think back on how much I disliked Bill Laimbeer in the heyday of the "bad boy" Detroit Pistons.

I'm sorry Steve Nash got kicked in the package and everything, but that sort of thing does tend to turn up the flames a notch or two.

We sharp-eyed pundits have noticed that these NBA playoffs have gotten a little chippy. It seems to me they often get a little chippy around this time, and because one must have theories I had a theory going that the reason for that is that the refs swallow their whistles, relatively speaking, at playoff time.

I had a feeling NBA officials call the same number of fouls per game in the playoffs as they do in the somnambulant "regular" season, which would constitute swallowing whistles, given how much more intense playoff play is than regular-season play.

I wasn't quite right, at least based on a quick look at the past two seasons. Last year, NBA officials called 22.76 fouls per team per game in the regular season, 23.98 in the playoffs. In 2004-05, the refs whistled 22.63 fouls per team per game in the regular year, 23.45 in the playoffs.

So there are more fouls, but the increase was only 5.3 percent last year, 3.6 percent the year before. Do you think NBA playoff play is only 3.6, or even 5.3 percent, more physical and intense in the postseason than it is during the 82-game snooze that starts Halloween week?

I have no idea how to put a number on that increased intensity, but if I were going to try, the number would certainly be bigger than five. It'd be a multiple of five, and I don't mean 10.

NBA refs don't quite "let 'em play" in the playoffs, but they let physical players and defenders go a lot farther in dictating the style of play than they do in the regular season. That's one of the reasons the Mavericks and Suns' stuff doesn't work so well in the playoffs.

I'd like it if the Suns-Mavericks style did work in the playoffs. It's a fun style to watch. But not if we have to sit through 70 or 80 fouls a game.

The way for opponents to deal with Bowen and guys like him -- wrestling villains -- is not to complain during the playoffs and wait for the league to investigate. Too late, and, Stoudemire's tirade aside, the Suns, especially Nash, deserve a tip of the cap for not whining about Bowen.

As is so often the case, Charles Barkley could tell you the right thing to do: Knock Bowen on his butt. That is, treat him like a wrestling villain. But the thing is, you have to start doing it in November.

And not just a hard foul. What I mean is that after one of his patented kick moves, someone has to charge him. After the whistle. Extracurricular. It's a suicide mission.

There has to be a player willing to take the double technical, the possible fine and suspension, for going after Bowen. It would preferably be the team's cleanest whistle, so all the chatter would be about how Bowen must really be dirty to send this good citizen over the edge. But anyone other than your own villain will do. So not Stephen Jackson, for example.

Then, next time you face the Spurs, somebody else should do the same thing.

It wouldn't take much. Nobody has to get in a full-scale brawl. Just tackle the guy. Two years ago Vince Carter got his legs tangled with Bowen thanks to Bowen's trick of simply walking toward a jump shooter so that he ends up underneath him. Carter charged at Bowen, but at a walk, baseball-player style. An official had time to intercept him.

Carter, who already had a technical foul, was ejected for getting his second. And he didn't even get to touch the guy. For not much more punishment, a fine that most players won't feel, some bad press from us holier-than-thou violence haters, a few missed games, Carter could have sent a message.

That message wouldn't be to Bowen, who can probably handle himself in a scuffle. It would be to the NBA and its officials. The message would be: Watch this guy. Games get out of hand and violence breaks out because of his dirty tactics. You take your punishment, but you plant an idea.

Having the refs thinking that way, watching Bowen closely, might go a long way come playoff time for a team like the Suns. Teams with designs on beating the Spurs in the postseason can afford to lose a few regular-season games because of suspensions. Title contenders have regular-season wins to spare. Those wins are an asset, and they should be spent. Wisely.

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