Before Bruce Bowen became known for his bow-tie-rocking attire on ESPN, he made a name for himself as one of the best on-ball defenders the league has ever seen. He was recognized for that on Wednesday night as his jersey was hung from the rafters in San Antonio.
SAN ANTONIO - It's certainly been an adjustment over the years, the evolution of this Spurs team into more of an offensive-minded, fast-paced group. Not that it's necessarily been intentional. Gregg Popovich focuses no less on defense than he did during the title run from 1999 to 2007, but this team no longer has the pieces to win many games while scoring less than 90 points anymore. And on a night where the No. 12 jersey of Bruce Bowen was raised to the rafters of the AT&T Center, the high-scoring 116-100 Spurs victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves was a somewhat ironic outcome with one of the greatest on-ball defenders in the league's history looking on. The Spurs don't quite play defense the way they used to, but, man, they sure can score.
Tim Duncan took advantage of a T'Wolves team without emerging center Nikola Pekovic and exploded out of the gates with 10 points and six rebounds in the first quarter on his way to a throwback 21-point, 15-rebound, four-assist performance. Behind his play and a 14-3 run over the final four minutes of the opening frame, the Spurs efficiently opened up a commanding 16-point lead over Minnesota, and the Timberwolves never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
The silver and black's youth movement has been well-chronicled this year, but Duncan's resurgence and consistent health have been absolutely critical.
"Tim's been really fresh all year long. I'm really enthused about his health and his body ... the way he's taking care of himself," Gregg Popovich told the media following the game. "He's got quickness and he's got more agility than he's had in a while.
"He's had it for the whole season, so it's been fun to watch."
Duncan and San Antonio did most of their damage without the services of Tony Parker, who left the game after only 10 minutes on the court with tightness in his left hamstring. But just as it's happened over the course of the season, other Spurs stepped up in their star's stead. Stephen Jackson had his best game of his second stint in San Antonio (I know it's only been two games), Tiago Splitter filled the box score, Kawhi Leonard dropped 16 and nine boards, Gary Neal once again held down the backup point guard position and Danny Green contributed in all aspects, just as he's made a habit of throughout this year. It's just further proof of the depth and energy that's giving San Antonio's opponents fits.
"I just can't believe how awesome you are, Gary."
Thanks, Tim. You're pretty ok too."
The Spurs have become a team - when completely healthy - with 11 players who can legitimately contribute in different aspects of the game. PATFO have pieced together a group of no-names, castoffs and late-round draft picks who have made San Antonio a legitimate contender in the West while making names for themselves in the process. And while the future is uncertain with guys like Neal and Green outperforming their contracts and likely earning bigger paydays when that time comes, the Spurs have managed to stay strong in the present, which also happens to be the twilight (or close to it, at least) of the careers of Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
As Pop looked over and saw Bowen sitting courtside, he was certainly reminded of the dominating defense that once was the calling card of the Alamo City. But as he turned to the current group that filled the home team's bench, one could argue he was looking at the most offensively diverse team he's had during his tenure as head coach. Still, and perhaps appropriately, one player notched eight more minutes of court time than any other Spur. On a night where Bowen's defensive efforts were honored, it was Kawhi Leonard who spent nearly 38 minutes on the floor against the Timberwolves. Pop still has his priorities, and Leonard continues to progress into a special player on both sides of the ball. While his ability to defend multiple positions on the floor is his most valuable asset, the offensive game he's developing is reason for excitement. He's showing the knack for scoring effectively in multiple fashions, whether it's from the perimeter or in the paint. His defense might not be where Bowen's was quite yet, but his offensive skill has already surpassed that of Bruce's.
It was a quality win with a stretch of five games in six nights - including the upcoming Triple Lindy (Mavs, @NOH, 76ers, on Fri-Sun) the first of the year - on the horizon, but it's important to acknowledge this wasn't the same Minnesota team the Spurs have had problems with during their first two matchups this season. Without star rookie Ricky Rubio, the Timberwolves have found more struggles than they were accustomed to over the first half of the year. His offensive playmaking ability from the point guard position are well-noted strengths in his game, but his defense is something that was vastly underrated. In only 10 minutes of play Parker managed to pitch in six assists before giving way to Neal, who found the scoring easy most of the night. Then again, the scoring came easily to basically everyone on this night. But that's nothing new. San Antonio is averaging 114 points per game in its six wins since the All-Star break, and that label of "boring" is one that should no longer be lazily slapped on this team.
No, this wasn't the classic Spurs defensive outcome we saw during Bowen's career, but neither were the 116 points scored. And as San Antonio continues to assimilate new acquisitions and players returning from injuries into this roster, it's becoming clear the type of offensive fireworks the Spurs are capable of putting on. Nearly every player on this roster can create his own offense in unique ways (
especially except for Matt Bonner), and opposing defenses must cover everyone on the floor at all times. There is nobody on this team you can consider an offensive liability when they play within their role, which means more freedom for the Big 3 (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker) to operate.
But this was just a game on a Wednesday night in March against banged up Minnesota. Sure, a win makes this more special, but last night was about Bowen. As Spurs greats lined the red carpet at midcourt to honor one of the most hated and loved players the NBA has ever seen, we were all reminded of what this team has given this city over the last 13-plus seasons. All the humility, all the camaraderie, all the generosity the organization has shown over the years, it was epitomized by the player who wore the jersey that freshly hangs from the ceiling in San Antonio. The highlights of a flailing Kobe Bryant, a dejected Dirk Nowitzki, a perplexed Amar'e Stoudemire and a flat-out angry Ray Allen - all guys known for their offense - played high above the floor, and with them came the memories of some great summers along the Riverwalk.
It's been a while since that feeling has returned to this city, but as this team continues to progress and get/stay healthy we all feel we're watching something potentially special. There are plenty of young, high-scoring superstars around this league absorbing all the lights and attention that come with living in the big-market setting, but down here in south Texas the Spurs are quietly molding something they hope will have longevity come playoff time.
Bowen doesn't fit the prototype of the NBA star you commonly see getting a jersey retired, but he is the exact model of what thrives here in San Antonio. Here, you work hard and you know your role. When that level of understanding is reached and you master your craft, you will be recognized by some of the most loyal fans and executives in the league. Last night's ceremony was an example of that. There have been some critics nationally of the Spurs' decision to retire Bruce's number, but for those who weren't around night in and night out for what he contributed to this team might not realize Bowen's importance. In an offensive-minded league struggling for ratings, he represented everything many loathed about the NBA. He annoyed and frustrated anyone he guarded, but most importantly he removed the other team's best player from the game. Sever the head of the snake and the rest can't survive. Whether it be the Lakers, Mavs, Cavs, Sonics, Suns or Pistons, Bowen has left an indelible mark on many franchises and players around the league, not just the Spurs.
Objectivity in the profession of journalism is a must, but that doesn't apply here. From this lifelong Spurs fan, thanks for the memories, Bruce.