Goateed, soft-spoken and even-tempered, San Antonio Spurs small forward Bruce Bowen has the stolid aspect of a jazz bassist. Yet in recent NBA seasons opponents have singled out the 6'7", 200-pound Bowen as--let's not put too fine a point on it--a thug. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he says, flashing an enigmatic smile befitting either a cool musician or a cold-blooded enforcer. ¬∂ While the postseason is the time when superstars such as Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and Tracy McGrady continue down their paths to the Hall of Fame, it is also time for bruisers such as Bowen to emerge from the background and make their marks (sometimes literally). Call them the Disrupters: Their unsung handiwork can change the flow of a game and the outcome of a series. "The pretty stuff makes the highlights," says Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, "but it's the guys who do the down-and-dirty work who can make or break a team."
The Nuggets, and forward Carmelo Anthony in particular, felt the impact of two such scrappers in Game 3 of their first-round Western Conference playoff showdown with the Spurs last Saturday in Denver. When Anthony wasn't getting banged and badgered by Bowen, he was getting jammed and jostled by swingman Manu Ginobili, whose style, as disgruntled Nuggets coach George Karl described it, is "put your head down and run into people." Anthony didn't play badly, but each of his 19 points was a struggle. With 22 seconds left and San Antonio's 86-78 victory and a 2-1 series lead sealed, he whacked Ginobili with a forearm, drawing a flagrant foul and an ejection.
"We may have gotten into his head a little," said Bowen. There was that smile again.
While Bowen had a typical nonoffensive night (three shots, five points), Ginobili pinballed his way to a game-high 32 points. Even though he has a sweet lefty jumper and a variegated array of moves to the hoop, it is Ginobili's willingness to sweep the floor with his headlong dives and bounce off opponents (or teammates) that gives him his identity. In a salute to Ginobili's style and Argentine heritage, Spurs guard Brett Barry has christened him El Contusión.
It is the perfect postseason nickname. Something changes when the phrase best of seven is in the air. The final six weeks of the regular season are--except for a stray team or two trying to grab an eighth seed--a sleepwalk to the finish line. But when the playoffs start, feet get lighter, elbows sharper, shoulders more forcefully placed. The in-the-paint bangers, loose-ball retrievers, back-screen setters and pick-and-roll thwarters make their presence felt. Backup big man Michael Ruffin, by his own account, has "never ever had a play called for him" during five seasons, but there he was last Saturday in Washington, making an early follow-up dunk that set the tone for the customarily soft Wizards in their 117-99 Game 3 defeat of the Chicago Bulls. "One small play can cost you a game and turn a series around," says Miami Heat power forward Udonis Haslem. "If you have an opportunity to make a play, do one of those little things, you'd better take advantage of it."
Or as Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy puts it, "At this time of year, even the little things are big things." That was confirmed, for good and ill, in Houston's showdown with the Mavericks. In Games 1 and 2, the pesky defense of forward Ryan Bowen against Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki helped the Rockets pull out a pair of road wins. (It also earned the 6'9" Bowen, who had made just six starts and averaged all of 9.2 minutes during the season, a new handle: the Germanator.) But in Game 4 on Saturday in Houston, a Mavericks role player trumped the Rockets' star. Though McGrady scored a game-high 36 points, he lost possession with 11.4 seconds remaining when small forward Josh Howard--the Mavs' one true disrupter--knocked the ball out of his hands, keying a 97-93 series-tying victory. "That kid is special," Dallas swingman Michael Finley said of Howard. "He doesn't always wow you, but he's got that knack for making game-changing plays at both ends."
The little things are often delivered in a forceful way, for pure muscle is a major part of playoff basketball. That's why nasty-by-nature players have an advantage in the postseason, a prime example being Bulls rookie forward Andrés Nocioni, whose energy will be critical if Chicago is to get past Washington, which squared the series with a 106-99 Game 4 win on Monday night. Rougher than Ruffin and bigger (but less skilled) than his countryman Ginobili, the 6'7", 225-pound Nocioni never goes around someone he can go through--and never steps aside if he can make someone go through him: Drawing offensive fouls is one of his specialties. "Noche positions his body, and he takes the hit, a lot of them directly in the middle of his chest, which is always a charge," says Bulls coach Scott Skiles. "Take that same hit in either shoulder, that's a block."
It's hard to say whether Nocioni thinks he plays dirty. "In Europe, I play like this all year and I never have problem," Nocioni says with disingenuousness made charming at least in part by his fractured English. "Here, I don't know why the people don't like my style. I try to defend strong. I try to get the rebounds. But some people aren't happy for this. It's a different style than most people. Maybe it's too hard for some people."
Sonics 6'8" forward Reggie Evans is too hard for some people also, though he is undersized for a power rebounder. After Seattle's first three games against Sacramento, Kings coach Rick Adelman filed an official complaint to the league about what he considered the Sonics' overly physical play. In helping Seattle to a 3-1 series lead, it was no surprise that Evans was throwing his 245 pounds around at both ends of the floor. When he goes for an offensive rebound, instead of trying to slither around the box-out, he latches on to his opponent's midsection, using one hand to keep him grounded while reaching for the board with the other. On the defensive end he sprints to the basket, carves out space with his butt, then spreads his stance to create more room. "I kind of sit back in the woods," says Evans, "just waiting for something to happen."
The best disrupters do the subtle things physically and, sometimes, the physical things subtly. Such a warrior is 14-year veteran Dale Davis, whose fierce play helped the Indiana Pacers stay even at 2--all in a bruising series with the Boston Celtics. Davis goes almost unnoticed by fans during a game--except when one of his rare shots clangs off the rim--but not by his teammates and coaches, who were delighted when he returned to Indiana from New Orleans in March. "Dale has been one of the main reasons this team has taken off," says guard Reggie Miller. He should know, for more often than not it is Davis who clears the way for a Miller jumper. Most fans don't look at setting a pick at all, but Davis studies it; he reads not only what Miller does ("He may take two steps left, two steps right, circle around and then come back up," Davis says) but also what the guy he's picking does, then he adjusts accordingly. And, unlike many of his oversized peers, he rarely gets called for an offensive foul.
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 Contusión, well knows, at this time of year, those who don't bruise usually lose. ‚ñ†
When he wasn't shouldering the load on D or on the boards, Haslem was hot-stepping to the rim for easy buckets during Miami's sweep.
Perhaps the most disruptive force in the playoffs, the musclebound Wallace (far left) kept the pressure on the Sixers and Allen Iverson to take a 3-1 series lead.
If he ends up on the floor or fending off an elbow to his face, so be it.
Between the superstar McGrady (right) and the ball-hawking Bowen, Dallas center Erick Dampier had more than he could handle.
The pinballing Ginobili keyed a Game 3 win by getting to the hoop--and by getting under the skin of Marcus Camby and Denver.
In a series with lots of hard feelings and few easy baskets, forward Jermaine O'Neal felt the full force of the Boston D from Raef LaFrentz (left) and Antoine Walker.
"I try to defend strong. Maybe [my style] is too hard for some people."
The long arms of Stephen Jackson couldn't keep Boston's Paul Pierce down for long in Game 4, when he erupted for 30 points.
The uncharacteristically rugged play of 7'1" Jerome James, who averaged a double double over the first four games, helped Seattle gain the upper hand against Brad Miller and Sacramento.
He carves out space, then spreads his stance to create more room.
In taking a 3-2 series lead, Dallas put the squeeze on 7'6" Yao Ming, who dished out almost as much punishment as he took.
In a matchup of two of the youngest and scrappiest teams, the fight for loose balls--like this one between Chicago's Chris Duhon (left) and Larry Hughes--was always on.
"One small play can cost you a game and turn a series around."