MIAMI — There was a time, just a little more than two years ago, when a Charlotte Bobcats team with the worst record in the NBA was more than happy to buy out an overweight Boris Diaw and get him off their roster. He was averaging 7.7 points points a night shooting 41.4 percent overall and 27 percent from three, plus he was unhappy and almost eating himself out of the league.
Now, he’s a key starter on a San Antonio Spurs team on the doorstep of winning an NBA Finals.
“I just think the Bobcats were not the right fit for him because he’s the ultimate team player and needs a system and stuff like that,” said Tony Parker, who has played with Diaw since they were teenagers together in France. “He’s a perfect fit for us.”
That’s could be an understatement.
Diaw’s overall play could land him on some NBA Finals MVP ballots — since Gregg Popovich inserted him into the starting lineup in Game 3 the Spurs have just steamrolled the Heat. In the Finals Diaw is +15 per 48 minutes and the Spurs main lineup of him, Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker is +51 per 48. He has the second most touches and the second most passes on the team, behind only Parker, in those two games — he is a hub of the Spurs’ offense.
To use Popovich’s words, Diaw lets the Spurs go small without actually going small (he is 6’8” and still carrying a little extra luggage listed at 250 pounds).
“You know, Boris pretty much does the same thing every night as far as helping us be a smarter team, at both ends of the floor,” Popovich said after Game 4. “He knows what’s going on most all the time. At the offensive end he’s a passer. He understands mismatches. He knows time and score. At the defensive end, he knows when to help. He’s active. So he just helps the whole team have a better IQ, I think.”
“Pop just told me that I was going to start the game and trying to be a facilitator out there, just trying to make plays for others and try to make the right choices,” Diaw said of being inserted into the starting lineup (which is “just” +6.3 per 48 with Diaw). “So I was just focusing on that role. Being able to be a relay. They’re pretty aggressive on their pickandrolls, so just try to be somebody that gives an outlet pass and looking for the open man.”
What he does well presents a challenge for Miami.
“He’s a crafty player man,” Chris Bosh said of Diaw. “He’s difficult, you never know what he’s going to do. You don’t know if he’s going to shoot it, you don’t know if he’s going to drive it, pass it, shoot it again, you don’t know what he’s going to do. I think his ability to do everything in that point forward kind of position makes it difficult…. He’s just one of those players that confuses the hell out of you. The minute you’re not watching he’s walking to the rim or shooting a set, wide-open three pointer.”
Popovich’s gift is defining roles that play to a player’s strengths then putting them in when they are in a position to succeed. Don’t ask a guy to be what he is not, ask him to do what he does well.
For Diaw that is passing, facilitating. He drives to dish, but if you leave him open he can drain the three and if you close out he can put the ball on the floor and drive and draw defenders so he can make the right read and pass.
Diaw sees what he has done this series as taking what the Heat are giving him.
“I mean, obviously we were looking to pass the ball to each other,” Diaw said. “But they forced us into that, too, because they are very aggressive on the pickandrolls. They don’t let us have any air, any space. So we’ve got to drive, we’ve got to kick, and we’ve got to make a few passes before we get an open shot. If we would have to do only one dribble and find somebody open and shoot it, we’d do it, too, but they force us to make three, four, five passes. But at some point we find somebody….
“I always try to read on the floor who is going to be open. We all try to make good passes. Everybody on our team is reading, including me, but we don’t want to go for the home run pass. We try to make the right pass, and sometimes the easy pass is the right pass.”
In Game 4 Diaw had 8 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists — he was on the verge of a triple-double. That he didn’t quite make the numbers does not detract from his overall impact — without him this would be a different series.
“I think he’s really found his rhythm,” Tim Duncan said. “He’s always been effective with what he’s done using his body, using his ability to pass and his ability to attack the basket and smaller players, and it’s really showing in this series. He’s been the key for us early, catching and driving, making the right plays, finding open people. He’s really changed the game for us, along with rebounding, defending as well as he has.
“He hasn’t really even scored that much, but he’s found a way to be really effective getting in the paint and finding people and making plays for us.”
So effective the Spurs are one win away from a title.