What we’ve been missing

When the Spurs took on the Philadelphia 76ers, I figured I’d have some friends over to catch the game. The Silver and Black were up by three heading into the fourth with the score 76-73. Then, at the 8:32 mark, Lou Williams threw down a dunk, tying the game at 82 a piece, and shifting the momentum in favor of Philly. Philadelphia went on an 18-3 run, and Williams scored 12 of his 20 points in the final period as the 76ers out scored the Spurs 33-18 in the fourth. Well, Spurs nation knows how the game ended.

After the game, and vacuuming up all the hair I ripped out of my head, my friends and I sat around and discussed what we had just seen. It seemed like we couldn’t get a stop. In the fourth quarter, in the most critical part of the game, our defense just wasn’t up to the challenge. And as we recapped what we just saw, my roommate said something that made everyone in the room nod with agreement, “I miss Bruce Bowen.”

The Spurs this season are ranked 12th in defense. This is the first time the Spurs haven’t been ranked in the top five since the 1996-97 season, when David Robinson missed 76 games due to injury.

In the eight seasons Bowen played for the Spurs, they were ranked either one, two or three defensively, except for Bowen’s last season  in ’08-’09, when the Spurs were ranked fifth. From 2003 to 2006, the Spurs were the number one ranked defense in the Association.

So, to get a feel of what Bowen really brought to the game, day in and day out, I decided to look at the Spurs in their defensive prime, and what better year then in 2005. In 2005, the Spurs were ranked number one defensively, Bowen was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, and the City of San Antonio held a parade down the Riverwalk. 2005, what a great year.

The leading scorer in the NBA in 2005 was Allen Iverson. The 6″1′ guard from Georgetown averaged 30.7 points per game while shooting 42 percent from the floor. However, in his two contest against the Spurs, Iverson went 14 for 41, shooting only 34 percent from the field.

The second leading scorer, was none other than Kobe Bryant. Bryant was averaging 27.6 points and shooting 43 percent, but in his three games against the Spurs, Kobe went a combined 19 for 57 and shot a stagnant 32 percent. In fact, Bryant scored over 20 points in only one of the three games. Now some Kobe fans might ask, “How do you know it was Bowen who stopped Kobe?” Well, in the three games they played against each other, Bryant averaged 40 minutes and Bowen averaged 35. We Spurs fans know it was the aggressive defense of Bowen that shut down Kobe as well as Iverson.

This season, George Hill and Keith Bogans have had to play the role of defensive stopper, and while they’ve done a good job, it’s not quite the same as Bruce Bowen. But then again, no one will ever duplicate what Bowen did on the defensive end.

The leading scorer in the NBA this season is Kevin Durant. The “Durantula” is averaging 29.6 points and shooting 47 percent. While the Spurs have slowed the young offensive machine twice this, including a victory against the Thunder, halting his streak of 29 consecutive 25 point games, Durant still seems to get buckets far too easily. In a game earlier this season, he exploded for 35 points and shot 45 percent from the field. 

The Spurs could potentially face the Thunder in the playoffs this season, so it is vital for them to come up with a defensive game plan designed to make Durant work for his points. Durant is going to get his buckets, one way or another, but if the Spurs can make it difficult for him and force him to get his teammates involved, then the youth and inexperience of the Thunder will work in favor of the Spurs. They could even let Durant get his points and shut down the others. See their approach to Amar’e and the Suns.

Continuing with our stroll down memory lane, the top offensive team in 2005 was, you guessed it, the Phoenix Suns, led by their MVP point guard Steve Nash. The Suns averaged a ridiculous 110 points per game, but in the three games they played against the Spurs they only cracked 110 points once. The second highest scoring team in the league was the Chris Webber led Sacramento Kings. The Kings averaged 103 points per contest, but in four games against the Spurs they averaged 81 points and not once did they score over 90 points.

I guess some things never do change because this season the highest scoring team in the NBA is the Phoenix Suns, led by, who else, MVP candidate Steve Nash. The Spurs have played the Suns twice this season. In the first game, the Suns scored 116 points, which is seven points better then their league leading 109 points per. Phoenix also shot 57 percent for the game.

The Denver Nuggets and their MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony are the second highest scoring team with 107 points a game. The Spurs held the Nuggets to an average of 100 points in their three meetings which is a good defensive effort, but the Nuggets shot over 50 percent in two of the three games.  

Now, I understand that Bruce Bowen alone can’t make a whole team defensively better, but Bowen didn’t just bring his defensive mentality to the court. He brought it to practice. He brought it to the locker room. His presence alone on the team reminded everyone that defense wins championships  

In 2007-2008, the Spurs brought in Ime Udoka to help out the 36-year-old Bowen on the defensive end. However, Bowen still played 30 minutes a night, while Udoka played 18 minutes per game. Udoka showed he could guard many of the high scoring players in the league, but he couldn’t do it like Bowen. Bowen made the NBA All-Defensive First Team for his fifth and final time. 

There will never be another defender like Bruce Bowen. Whether he was guarding a 6″1′ Allen Iverson, a 6″6′ Kobe Bryant or a 7 foot Dirk Nowitzki, Bowen was fearless. He played with a passion on the defesive that we may never see again. He wasn’t afraid to throw an elbow or a knee, see Steve Nash, and for that he was labeled as dirty. And I loved that about Bowen. He didn’t care what anyone called him, because at the end of the day, he was going to get that steal, or make the game winning block. He was going to get the stops necessary for the Spurs to win, no matter what.  

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