Asked to describe the style of play of his swingman Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich smiled slightly and said, "Very defensive."
During the Spurs' second-round Western Conference playoff series against Seattle, that not only summed up Bowen's game but was also a response to criticism of it.
The Sonics' Ray Allen said recently that Bowen plays dirty basketball.
"He pulls you, he grabs you, he hits your elbow every time you shoot," Allen said before the series began last Sunday. "When you go to the basket, he'll shove you, then he'll fall. Stuff like that is annoying and not really basketball."
Early in the second quarter of Game 1, Allen drove the lane with Bowen on his shoulder and turned his ankle after stepping on Bowen's foot. Allen played only 13 minutes and scored 8 points, as the Spurs coasted, 103-81. Afterward, Allen suggested that the collision was intentional on Bowen's part, saying that he was "good for that; he's done that before."
The Allen-Bowen conflict has generated new debate over Bowen's defense, which he developed through two seasons in the Continental Basketball Association, two years playing in France and nine years -- with four teams -- in the NBA. Over each of the past five seasons, Bowen, 33, has been selected to the league's all-defensive team, and this year was runner-up for the defensive player of the year award.
"My whole thing was just trying to get on the court - period," said Bowen, who acquired his defensive mindset under Heat coach Pat Riley. "In Miami, that was the way to get on the court. If you could stop somebody and the team is not scoring on you, the coaches think, `We have to keep him on the court.'"
The Spurs have long placed a premium on defense, from Alvin Robertson to David Robinson to Tim Duncan, an eight-time selection to the league's all-defensive team.
Many of the NBA's top defenders have augmented their games with attitude. Dikembe Mutombo was an enforcer with a finger-wagging gesture. Dennis Rodman was a tormentor. Ben Wallace is an intimidator. Ron Artest is an agitator.
Bowen is none of the above. He is soft-spoken and affable. He is involved in several charitable causes in San Antonio and in his hometown, Fresno, California.
He does not swear. "It's not conducive to anything," he said.
Bowen said he wanted his image to be about hard work, not about being a bad guy. "Of course that doesn't get any headlines," he said.
But his defensive tenacity does make headlines, and some coaches and players in the league say his play borders on the malicious.
Last season, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders yelled, "He's dirty!" to the referees when Bowen became entangled with Sam Cassell. Later that season, after Bowen hit the Mavericks' Michael Finley with a forearm and was not suspended, Dallas coach Don Nelson told The Dallas Morning News, "You now can put me down as one of the many who have called him dirty."
Last season, Toronto's Vince Carter severely sprained his ankle when he came down on Bowen's foot. Carter suggested that Bowen had tried to injure him. Then on Feb. 11 of this season, while playing for the Nets, Carter said he thought Bowen undercut him on a jumper before the two tumbled to the floor. Carter had to be held back from attacking Bowen, and received his first career ejection.
Allen said that incident was typical of Bowen. "He does the little things and gets you to want to fight him," Allen said.