Even Bruce Bowen, Godfather of the Closeout, Says Zaza Pachulia Went Too Far

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 14:  Zaza Pachulia #27 of the Golden State Warriors reacts to a foul called against him during Game One of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at ORACLE Arena on May 14, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — Walking off the 18th green at the TPC San Antonio golf course on Monday afternoon, Bruce Bowen flipped on his smartphone after a distraction-free round, discovered numerous missed text messages and calls and wondered what could have provoked them.

"I thought, 'Wow, did somebody see me make that par on 18?'" said the former San Antonio Spurs defensive ace, a starter on three of the Spurs' five NBA championship teams.

The first text he checked had nothing to do with his prowess on the course.

"It was from a friend who is old enough to be my father," Bowen said. "He said, 'They are really killing you on Twitter. You are trending.' And, I'm thinking, 'Hell, I was playing golf today. What's going on with me?'"

It didn't take long for Bowen, an eight-time member of the NBA's All-Defensive team (first team from 2004 through 2008) to understand the reason why. Gregg Popovich, his former coach, had raged about what he called Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia's "dangerous" and "unsportsmanlike" play that re-injured Spurs star Kawhi Leonard's ankle in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals the day before.

Soon after, Bowen's name was being invoked on social media by observers who cited him as the godfather of the dangerous three-point closeout, a charge he denied during his playing days and still despises.

"The thing is, now I've seen all the stuff going around on social (media) and all the things people are saying, and a lot of it involves me," Bowen said. "Well, I used to hate it when people called me dirty. I thought it was unfair when people just piggyback on what other people say. And I still do."

But Bowen has no sympathy whatsoever for Pachulia.

"That play? I've watched it and, yeah, I thought he took an extra step," he said. "Plenty of time to stop where he did, but he continued moving in that direction of Kawhi. That seems like it's intentional and it's definitely dangerous."

Pachulia on Monday said he didn't mean to injure Leonard, a defense that Popovich rejected like a prosecuting attorney.

"Who gives a damn about what his intent was?" Popovich told reporters in San Francisco. "You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail if you're texting (and driving) and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that."

Nobody can prove the intent of Pachulia's actions on the play that injured Leonard, but Bowen said his actions speak louder than his words.

"What was his intent?" Bowen said. "You can rewind something five times and convince yourself of anything. What I saw, he kept moving in that direction after he contested the shot. You know you have to let a player come down. He kept walking into that space, so, for me, that says more about the intent."

The prevalence of three-point shots in today's NBA has brought an emphasis on closing out on long-distance shooters. Many three-point marksmen, including Warriors star Stephen Curry, have learned to leverage the desperation of defenders who are running at them by pump-faking and creating contact. The art of the closeout is evolving, and is much more difficult for a big man like Pachulia, not exactly the most nimble-footed of players.

"Honestly, you might just run by (the shooter)," Bowen said. "You're talking about a big man now, and how often do they close out on a three-point shooter? So, whether it's Pau Gasol or Karl-Anthony Towns, they stay put. There is no technique with bigs. They usually stop short and just put their hands up, because of their length. But, Zaza kept going and took the extra steps."

The closeout is nearly impossible, even for the most agile defenders.

"From a guard perspective, you want to get close, but you know you can't get too close, because you have to let them come down," Bowen said. "You know you have to close out short, and even then, a guy like Jamal Crawford is the king of drawing that type of foul because you can't help getting in his space. So you try to run him off the line so he can get past you, or else you run the risk of a four-point play with him.

"That doesn't answer the question very well, but this is how it gets hard in the game because it is not simple."

Popovich didn't request review of the Pachulia foul by NBA Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe, but expected the league to look at it. The Spurs coach cited prior dangerous plays by Pachulia, including one, now available on social media, in which, according to Popovich, "he took Kawhi down and locked his arm in Dallas and could have broken his arm."

Bowen believes he knows how he would have been disciplined had he been reviewed for such a play.

"I don't know what is going to happen to Zaza," Bowen said, "but if that had been me, I know what would have happened: suspension."

Bowen also recalled an incident during his career when VanDeWeghe's predecessor Stu Jackson phoned him and warned him about his defensive techniques.

"After that call, I couldn't concentrate on how I play my game," Bowen said. "I remember that kid from Gonzaga, Adam Morrison, got 30 on me one night because I was flustered after I got a call from Stu. I felt like I had to give him a cushion. Pop recognized there was something different about me in that game, and he asked what the heck was going on. I told him Stu had called and told me I had to be careful how I guarded, and Pop was really pissed and told me to guard how I guard. And that was that."

Guarding the three-point shooter has become one of the most difficult assignments in today's game, and Bowen believes the rules pertaining to it should remain as they are.

"It's not about changing the rule," he said. "But, there is a rule in place about a guy coming down. And, a guy like Steph Curry, knowing you can't get close to him, is going to take advantage. And we Monday-morning-quarterback and try to come up with solutions. But, it's the game."

So, Bowen learned to play his game without letting the noise about his alleged dirty play alter his effectiveness; nor the rules diminish his aggressiveness. But ultimately, players know what they have to do, and Pachulia didn't do it on Sunday. Nobody truly knows what his intent was, and we never will, but that doesn't matter. What we do know is his Game 1 move itself doesn't promote responsible defensive technique.

That is why one of the masters of the closeout isn't having it.