SAN ANTONIO -- Bruce Bowen didn't merely drape himself all over Dirk Nowitzki's body. He also crawled into his head.
Bowen bugs, hugs Dirk
Take a look at a sampling of Nowitzki's postgame comments Sunday after he made just one basket in the fourth quarter and nearly threw the ball away on Dallas' final possession in an 87-85 loss to San Antonio in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series:
"I'm not going to get any open looks in this series. I already know that."
Or this one:
"I know I'm not going to score 35 a game in this series."
Despite standing nearly a half-foot taller than the defensive specialist assigned to guard him, Nowitzki grew increasingly flummoxed as the afternoon wore on Sunday to the point where the look on his face went from normal to quizzical to queasy.
And on the final play, when Dallas got the ball into his hands near the top of the circle, he stumbled so quickly in the face of an onrushing second defender that he fired the ball to Jerry Stackhouse in the corner rather than waiting for Stackhouse to cut to the basket as coach Avery Johnson had intended the play to unfold. Manu Ginobili deflected the pass, and Stackhouse managed only a desperation heave from the corner that missed everything to end a compelling, competitive game between the two best teams in the West.
More of the same should be in store as we move through the next two weeks. Unless, of course, the doubts in Nowitzki's head continue to rattle around up there like one of Bowen's foul shots. And with a full dose of the same close coverage coming his way for the foreseeable future, that possibility cannot be dismissed.
"It's what you call 'bear-hug defense,'" Mavs coach Avery Johnson said afterward. "That's the new NBA rule. That's what's going on, and I've got to try to formulate or simulate a drill to help him. If a bear comes up to you and hugs you, what's he going to do?"
Johnson left his own question unanswered, but you don't need to be a Discovery Channel regular or a National Geographic Explorer aficionado to know what happens when a bear hugs a human.
The bear wins. And it ain't a pretty loss for the human.
But Bowen wasn't bear hugging Nowitzki so much as he was pestering him like an oversized insect. He was a gnat with his hands and arms, keeping one or the other on Nowitzki at all times, grabbing and clutching occasionally, and with enough discretion, that the refs never called him on it.
We've all seen him do the same to Kobe Bryant and every other scorer in the league, most recently against Bonzi Wells of Sacramento in the latter stages of the Kings-Spurs first-round series, and now it's the big blonde German's turn to try to find a way to repel him. Bowen has guarded Nowitzki before, but never with the stakes this high.
"This has the feel of an NBA Finals," said Bowen, who shrugged it off when Johnson's bear hug comment was relayed to him. "It used to bother me. You would think you try to earn the respect of other coaches, and you'd think they'd be happy with what you do because you give 110 percent. But it's something that's said a lot, so add him to the mini-list of others who want to say stuff."
The task for Johnson in the next two days will include not only inventing a drill to simulate Bowen's defense but also giving some serious thought to sending a few more double-teams at Tim Duncan.
The Mavs tried to stop the Big Fundamental with single coverage about 90 percent of the time -- using DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and DJ Mbenga -- and Duncan ate it up with a display of his offensive arsenal rarely seen during this regular season, when his scoring average was the lowest of his career.
"It was like it was in my rookie year when we were going through him all the time," Tony Parker said.
Dallas got away with leaving Parker (7-for-18) open on the perimeter, and they contained Ginobili enough (15 points on 5-for-14 shooting, five turnovers) to put themselves in position to win.
Bowen's 3-pointer from the corner with 2:14 remaining gave the Spurs their final points and broke an 84-84 tie.
Six missed shots later, the game came down to one final possession, and Nowitzki was too blanketed by Bowen to finish his job as the first option.
"I knew they were going to go to Dirk, and my thing was I'm going to make this as tough as possible for him -- tougher even than his other shots," Bowen said. "He started stumbling, and if he tries to shoot the ball stumbling it's going to be a bad shot."
But that wasn't even Nowitzki's final stumble. As he left the postgame interview podium after telling everyone how he wouldn't score 35 in the series or get any open looks, he nearly tripped over a chair while exiting stage right.
It shouldn't surprise anyone if it was Bowen who put that chair there.
• Talk back to the Daily Dime gang
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
On the day we learned that he will get his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award in five seasons, Big Ben Wallace erased all doubts about whether he's still got it, blocking six Cavs shots, including this runner by Larry Hughes.
Some talking points from Phoenix on the eve of Suns vs. Clippers, Game 1:
• Suns center Kurt Thomas is close to returning to full practices, but his boss doubts Thomas (stress fracture, right foot) will be able to play against the Clippers at all.
Desperate as he is for interior size and defensive know-how against Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, Suns coach Mike D'Antoni wants to be cautious with Thomas, especially after Amare Stoudemire's all-too-brief comeback in March.
"I wouldn't take that bet," D'Antoni said when asked if Thomas is a candidate to play in this round, suggesting it's a bit much to expect the 33-year-old to step into a prominent playoff role after three months of inactivity even if he is healthy.
Cassell, 36, wore an ice pack on his back for much of the second half of the Clippers' series-clinching victory over Denver in Game 5, but should benefit from a week of rest.
Nash, meanwhile, played through back stiffness throughout the Suns' first-round series with the Lakers and also twisted his right ankle in Game 7, but Nash reported little trouble with either injury after a brief workout Sunday. The back, Nash says, has actually loosened up rather quickly on the morning after games.
• As you'd imagine, there was some interesting Kobe chatter in the desert in the wake of Game 7.
One story circulating among the Suns is that Bryant strongly encouraged teammates not to linger on the floor after the final buzzer for post-series handshakes. Suns ex Jim Jackson was one of the few Lakers who did stick around to congratulate his ex-teammates, as well as the L.A. coaches.
"I got the handshake I wanted," said Suns forward Tim Thomas, referring to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whom Thomas called "a legend."
• Trivia question: Which player from the Lakers and Suns, before Saturday night, had played in the most Game 7s?
Surprising answer: It's the Suns' Raja Bell, who returned from a Game 6 suspension to play in his fourth career Game 7, one more than Bryant or Nash. Bell is now 4-0 in those games.
-- Marc Stein in Phoenix
From the Scouts Inc. breakdown of the conference semifinals matchup between New Jersey and Miami:
Nets: Richard Jefferson has been unbelievable in the playoffs. He is currently No. 10 in scoring in the postseason, averaging 23.5 points on 53.3 percent shooting.
Jefferson will put a lot of pressure on Wade to defend. If Wade matches up with Jefferson or Carter, he will have his hands full. If Wade is matched up with Jefferson, look for him to take Wade into the post and try to draw some fouls on him during the series.
If Walker guards Jefferson, look for him to catch and dribble-drive to the paint.
Heat: It will be interesting to see how Riley gives out minutes in this series. I don't believe that Walker can guard any of the Nets perimeter players, and I think he is better suited to guarding Krstic or Cliff Robinson.
Walker had a good series against the Bulls but the numbers show that he shot just 37.6 percent against the Bulls and almost the same in the regular season series against the Nets.
Antoine must continue to get Shaq the ball. If Shaq is dominant in the low post, Walker will have a lot of open shots throughout this series.
San Antonio came from behind in the fourth quarter, then held off the Mavs on the final play of the game.
Spurs win tight one behind TD's 31
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki managed just two points in the fourth quarter thanks to Bruce Bowen's "bear-hug defense."
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
This surely isn't Larry Brown's style of Dee-troit Basketball.
All season long the Pistons showed they were a more lethal offensive team than before, but it somehow seemed as if it was just a phase. When the playoffs came, their patented, bruising, slow-down game just had to take over, right?
That's what the Cleveland Cavaliers thought, too, using their precious few hours of preparation before Sunday's Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series to ready for Detroit's merciless defensive front.
Instead they got a culture shock in a 113-86 whipping, leaving them so disoriented they thought they were in the desert witnessing a mirage.
"At first, I wasn't sure if we were playing the Detroit Pistons or the Phoenix Suns, the way they were shooting 3s," said LeBron James, who had all 22 of his points in the first half. "When you play Detroit you think about the defense and then they come out and hit all these 3s."
The Pistons did that, raining in 15 of them to set a franchise playoff record -- 10-of-11 in the first half.
In the second quarter, they scored on 18 of their 21 possessions en route to another team playoff record 43 points, leaping out to a massive lead the Cavs had no chance of overcoming.
Six games into what figures on being a long playoff run, the Pistons are averaging 108 points a game on 49 percent shooting, with five players averaging double figures. Last season they scored only 90 points per game in the playoffs, and just 87 in their title run in 2004.
Tayshaun Prince led the way, outscoring James and tying his career playoff high with 24 points.
"We came in extremely focused knowing the job at hand," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "We knew a team that comes in on a high like that can go one of two ways, they run off that high or you can jump on them and make them inquisitive about what they're doing."
-- Brian Windhorst in Auburn Hills, Mich.
That's your short list of players who had won back-to-back MVP awards before Nash officially joined them Sunday.
"I don't know about you, Steve, but when I look at those names it's kind of scary," D'Antoni said to commence Nash's MVP press conference.
Nash echoed the implausibility of it all, admitting that "it feels a little bit uncomfortable" to join Magic and Jordan as the only guards on that list.
But longtime Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo is adamant that Nash needn't apologize, saying that Nash "has a totally different body" than he had when Phoenix drafted him in 1996. The Suns' theory is that Nash has maximized his athleticism as a sleeker 32-year-old, compared to his bulkier 20s, and that the body work -- combined with veteran wisdom, D'Antoni's system and the new rules limiting contact on the perimeter -- has pitched Nash to his new stratosphere.
"Years from now, there won't be any asterisk next to his name that says 'controversial pick,'" Colangelo said.
-- Marc Stein in Phoenix
I'm beginning to wonder if Kobe Bryant has a major weakness.
I'm not making a final judgment; I'm just starting to wonder.
What's with these amazing shifts in the way he plays?
If this is versatility, that's fine, that's great.
But if it's some spiteful game he plays every now and then to prove a point, then it's a character flaw that could put a cap on how far he can lead a team.
I really don't understand how he can take only three shots in the second half of Game 7.