Boris Diaw has been the biggest surprise of the NBA Finals, helping lift the Spurs to a 2-1 series lead because he’s a triple threat at the offensive end – feathery touch from 3-point range, the feet of a ballet dancer in the paint, and the passing vision of a point guard – and deceptively quick enough on defense to defend all the Heat frontcourt players and LeBron. But how did Diaw get here, to the NBA’s biggest stage, after nearly eating his way out of the League just two years ago?
It was 2012, and the losses were mounting in Charlotte for Boris Diaw. Six losses in a row here, a win followed by 16 more defeats, and eventually, Diaw – who had played in a team-record 258 consecutive games – was benched. Two years prior, Diaw was instrumental on Larry Brown’s surprise playoff team. But when Brown was canned and replaced with Paul Silas, Diaw fell out of favor and began coming up as DNP-CD in the box score.
The Bobcats were hurtling toward a league-low seven wins in the strike-shortened season, and Diaw clashed with Silas. A cerebral player with the ability to run some point guard (as he did in Phoenix under Mike D’Antoni), bang down low and play the Stretch 4, Diaw came out of the 2011 lockout noticeably fleshier, and Silas, a relentless defender and tireless rebounder in his NBA days, couldn’t handle Diaw not going “all out.”
It’s not as if Diaw’s gut was flopping proudly over his shorts, but was clearly rounder. He was gently mocked by Sports Illustrated.com. Silas decided if Diaw wasn’t going to hustle, he could park his big caboose on the bench.
Vincent Collet, Diaw’s coach on the French national team, made a trip to Charlotte during the 2011-2012 season.
“He wasn’t happy with the situation,” Collet told The Big Lead via email from France. “Boris is a good teammate and he can accept a lot to help the team … [he] likes the game to be well-organized, sharing the ball, defending as a team, [and that] wasn’t the case in Charlotte.”
So Diaw made the decision to leave money on the table – according to this Associated Press story, Diaw was still owed “about $2 million,” and it’s unclear if that’s how much he walked away from – in hopes of playing for a contender.
“Things turned sour when Larry left and there was a coaching change. Some players can play for any coach, some can’t,” Diaw’s agent, Doug Neustadt, told The Big Lead this week. “Being on a really good team and having an important role – something he had to carve out – made him pick San Antonio.”
In two years, Diaw went from being portly and at a career crossroads to starring in the NBA Finals. Kawhi Leonard’s 29-point night was pivotal to San Antonio’s Game 3 victory Tuesday, but one statistic is undeniable: With Diaw on the floor in the first three games, the Spurs are a stunning +45 on the scoreboard. After averaging just 24 minutes a game during the regular season, he’s played 34 minutes a night in the Finals so far.
His insertion into the starting lineup for Game 3 clearly surprised the Heat, because defensively they were a mess – San Antonio re-wrote the record book by shooting 86 percent in the 1st quarter and 75 percent in the first half – and Diaw’s counterpart, Chris Bosh, was a complete non-factor at the offensive end, getting just 12 touches.
A year ago at the NBA Finals, Diaw was benched by coach Gregg Popovich for perceived laziness in Game 2, which was a Miami rout. Diaw came off the bench, played 11 minutes, didn’t take a shot or collect a rebound, and Pop took it out on Captain Babac in Game 3: The Spurs won by 36, and everyone played – even Tracy McGrady!– except Diaw. Incidents like that one have pocked Diaw’s seesaw 11 year career. In Jack McCallum’s terrific book with the Phoenix Suns, “:07 Seconds or Less,” there was this exchange between the coaches about Diaw:
“Well, what everyone is playing against is how good Boris Diaw plays in our system,” says D’Antoni. “Can he be a legit backup power forward?”
“What I worry about, with Boris, is his attitude,” says Alvin Gentry. “He just doesn’t seem to want to learn.”
“Boris is in your head, Coach,” says Iavaroni, smiling.
“Damn right he is,” answers Gentry.
“You try to get Boris to do anything in practice he doesn’t want to do, and it’s tough,” says Dan.
“I know I shouldn’t say anything to Boris,” says Gentry. “I mean, he won a whole thirteen games last year in Atlanta.” What did we win, sixty-two?”
The resurrection of Diaw in the 2014 playoffs as been fascinating. Tabbed as the French Magic Johnson in his youth, Diaw has bounced between horrendous teams (Atlanta) great ones (Phoenix) back to the basement (Charlotte) and now he’s on the cusp of winning his first NBA Title. Diaw made just 18 three-pointers in his first 69 playoff games; he made eight in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder.
On the road, with his countryman Tony Parker lost to injury, Diaw scored a team-high 26 points, helping propel the Spurs to the Finals. The Spurs know what they’re going to get from The Big Three; if Leonard and Diaw can continue their multifaceted play, they’ll deliver the Spurs another Championship.
“Maybe he’s not the most swift-a-foot, and he can’t jump very well, but he’s so smart in the way he uses his body to create space,” Kevin Love told The Big Lead this week. “I love to watch him at both ends. He’s one of the guys I’ve been asking for a lot of film on this offseason. He’s got a great pump fake and he’s just a smart player. I tell people to watch Diaw and they’re like, ‘huh’? I tell them watch him for a full game, he’s very good.”
One would assume that Erik Spoelstra said the same thing to the Heat during their marathon film session Wednesday to prepare for Game 4.