Boris Diaw has gone from Bobcats castoff to NBA Finals difference maker

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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. 

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.

Blazers passing impressive as they push first-half lead to double digits (VIDEO)

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Back home, the Portland Trail Blazers looked far more comfortable.

Feeding off the energy of a loud crowd at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers stretched out to a first-half lead thanks to a level of impressive ball movement and energy we have not seen from them all series. Check it out.

This may go down as the Myers Leonard game, he had 13 points in the first half.

Portland stretched their lead to as much as 18 and was up by 13 at the half. I wouldn’t call that comfortable because, well, Golden State, but it’s the best the Blazers have played all series.

Rockets will not bring defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik back next season

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Before the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 112.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 25th in the NBA.

After the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 105.3, second best in the NBA. In the playoffs, the Rockets had a 107.3 defensive rating despite six games against the Warriors.

There are multiple reasons for that change, but a key one: The Rockets backed up the Brinks truck and brought assistant coach and defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to help fix the problems.

Bzdelik will not be back with the team next season, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Technically Bzdelik was fired, although that is not an accurate description of really what happened here. This was not because of poor job performance, it was a question of if he really wanted to be there, and the Rockets wanted someone all-in. Understandably. This is a Houston team still on the cusp of a title, just one that has run headlong into the Warriors dynasty in recent years. A dynasty that likely will look a lot different next year, opening the door in the West. The Rockets want to push through that door.

That said, replacing Bzdelik will not be easy.

It’s one of a number of challenging choices for the Rockets this summer.