Gregg Popovich surprised everyone by starting Matt Bonner in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals last night, but it was back-up Boris Diaw whose fingerprints were all over the Spurs’ 117-89 victory. Let us appreciate his role-playing brilliance.
Diaw put up 13 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in 28 minutes but as is usually the case with the Frenchman, the stats do not fully reflect his impact on the game. San Antonio outscored the Thunder by 19 with him on the court. He was in constant motion, spreading the floor, attacking off the dribble and putting his teammates in positions to succeed.
He was masterful in the second quarter when the Spurs broke the game open.
With 6:22 remaining in the period, he did what Bonner (0-for-4) was supposed to do and punished Serge Ibaka for clogging the lane on defense by hitting an open three. It is this kind of extra floor-spacing that the Spurs lacked with Duncan and Splitter on the floor together:
Later in the quarter with the Spurs up 6, Diaw again found himself open beyond the arc. As a concerned Kendrick Perkins raced out to get a hand in his face, Diaw rifled a pass down low to the now-open Duncan for a layup. Brilliant stuff:
Few nominal power forwards are capable of seeing and making that pass, and perhaps fewer still would be willing to make it. Alas, Diaw never has cared much about his own point totals – a rare quality indeed. As the story goes, then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson sat Boris down at the end of his second season in the league and suggested he become more of a shooter. Boris cut him off: “I cannot play for you”. He was traded shortly thereafter. Even as the third highest paid player on the Charlotte Bobcats more recently he was apparently more interested in eating hamburgers than padding his scoring stats.
Diaw will attack when the time is right, however. Here, after securing the offensive rebound with his hustle, he creates something out of nothing by taking the slow-footed Perkins off the dribble to draw the foul:
It was his defense though that ignited perhaps the most important moment for the Spurs last night, as he expertly helped on a Kevin Durant drive and impressively fingertip-blocked what would have been an emphatic, potentially momentum changing dunk:
He followed it up by running the floor and drawing two defenders beneath the Thunder basket before flipping a beauty of a pass to the never-smiling Kawhi Leonard for the open three. Kawhi’s shot gave the Spurs a 60-49 lead, an early dagger in the heart of OKC and one from which they never recovered:
This is all par for the course with Diaw, an extremely high IQ player who thrives on playing alongside other good players. Effectively position-less on offense, he is able to blow by big men on the perimeter (ask Nick Collison) and take less sturdy defenders to school in the post (ask KD). Though not much of a 3-point threat coming into the league, he has turned himself into a 40% shooter from beyond the arc. His supremely well-rounded offensive game and ever-apparent unselfishness are symbolic of the system and tendencies Pop has instilled in San Antonio: take the jumper when you’re open, penetrate when there’s a lane to the hoop, pass up a good shot for a great shot.
Diaw is a reserve now, but let us not forget that he was the third best player on the ‘05/06 Suns, who were just two wins shy of making the NBA Finals. Averaging 13 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists whilst playing three different positions, he established himself as something of a Swiss Army knife, doing a little bit of everything. That year he put up a ridiculous five triple doubles in one season. Only five other players have done that since: LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and now Lance Stephenson.
In the ’06 playoffs Diaw became just the 14th player in league history to put up 370 points, 130 rebounds and 100 assists in a single postseason. Lakers fans certainly remember his role in the Suns’ comeback from 3-1 down in the first round. Over the last four games of that series he sliced L.A. apart from the high post and low post alike, averaging 22 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds on 59% shooting.
Though Diaw’s impact cannot truly be measured through statistics, his accumulative playoff numbers are of considerable historic significance for a role player.
- Only ten players 6’9” or under have shot at least 51% from the field on over 670 playoff field goal attempts. It’s a legend-laden list: Charles Barkley, James Worthy, Clyde Frazier, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Cedric Maxwell, Adrian Dantley, Buck Williams, Kiki Vandeweghe and Diaw.
- Only three players have put up over 800 points, 380 rebounds and 280 assists in the postseason whilst shooting less than 900 field goal attempts: Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc and Diaw.
A Kukoc/Diaw comparison is one worth making: both rangy Euro forwards with enough guard skills to create a matchup nightmare for many opponents. I touched on Toni’s brilliance in my 1990 NBA Draft recap. Like Diaw, he was a nifty passer and unselfish player who took very few bad shots, was dependable in big moments and ultimately helped his team win. Both Diaw and Kukoc could have put up higher scoring numbers. Both were occasionally unselfish to a fault during their primes but both will be remembered fondly by basketball purists. Though Kukoc was longer, slightly more athletic and a purer shooter, Diaw is a more instinctive rebounder and better defender, able to guard multiple positions without being exposed. He even matched up with LeBron James at times in last year’s Finals and gave him trouble.
With San Antonio now just one win from returning to the Finals for a likely rematch with LeBron’s Heat, expect Diaw to again play big minutes in Game 6 against the Thunder – potentially as a starter. At age 32 he is still seeking his first title and if the Spurs are able to get their revenge against Miami he will surely be an important, though likely unheralded reason why. A career 9 points per game scorer who has only ever put up 30 points in an NBA game twice, he is an undervalued asset as a role player and someone we would all enjoy playing alongside. Appreciate him.