A Boris By Any Other Name
USA Today Sports
Besides Stephen Curry (homer alert!) and LeBron James, Boris Diaw is my favorite player to watch and learn from in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs unleash Diaw in a way that allows him, at times, to function as the fulcrum on both sides of the floor. Who can forget the way he limited LeBron James in last year’s seven-game epic NBA Finals? On the other end, his two-man game and understanding of the spacing on the floor relieves much of the pressure off the Spurs Big Three if one, or two, isn’t feeling comfortable on a particular night.
Diaw is listed as a 6’8” 250lb power forward with a wingspan of about seven feet by ESPN. Perhaps that 250 mark is a bit of a stretch — if he is 250 then I can scale Mt. Everest despite my inability to run a mile without falling over. But his length and, let’s say, girth ironically affords him more ability than others. WIth his under-the-basket offense and innate passing ability, Diaw anticipates plays rather than react to them.
On defense, it allows him to guard players like quicker point guards (for only a possession or two at a time and in a halfcourt set) and forwards at the same time. He isn’t necessarily excellent in any area of the game but the variation and chameleon-esque quality of his arsenal of talents is terrific.
All this after toiling and getting cut from one of the worst teams in NBA history. The Spurs are magicians.
The Spurs run many variations of plays around the excellent screen wizardry of Tim Duncan, penetration abilities of Tony Parker and the perpetual legion of players that are in the right place at the right time. I don’t profess to understanding any of their offensive goals, except to get the ball in the basket, but there are certain things they allow Diaw to do to jumpstart and vary the offense.
One of their go-to plays is the pick-and-let-Diaw-create. When teams switch smaller players onto Diaw, he immediately goes to post-up not to score, but to eviscerate defenses that double. He can make a hook shot or jumper but most players are inclined to help because of the size difference. This allows Diaw to find Tim Duncan with a nifty wrap-around pass. A lot of this is and has been negated by Serge Ibaka’s length and a sudden shift in frenetic activity by the Thunder defense so this is something to look forward to going back to San Antonio.
A 39.6 three-point shooter in the regular season, Diaw can space the floor against opposing 4s and 5s and then drive past them when they do close out.
Jeremy Lamb is the culprit here. Taking a step to the block for no reason at all, Diaw creates by using his reliable shot to create either a contested jump (from Kevin Durant) or a back-step (from Serge Ibaka). Two players that aren’t used to guarding the Swiss Army knife that is Diaw, it collapses the defense and giftwraps Manu Ginobili two threes.
The Thunder have started to sag off Diaw, allowing him to bomb away in an effort to stifle the ubiquitous drive-and-kick attempts of the Spurs. This has worked to an extent but a reliable shooter like Diaw will have to regress back in order to punish the Thunder big men.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are good one-on-one players but that isn’t, nor should it be, the mainstay of the Spurs offense. They use different kinds of screens and motions to get each other open. Diaw only helps by recognizing what to do in certain situations.
Diaw exhibits unbelievable patience in either setting double screens off a two-sided screen or playing a pure two-man drive-and-kick game with Ginobili. Though the key to these exchanges it the slow reaction times by the defenders. With Ibaka healthy and Steven Adams blowing screens up, Diaw will have to outmaneuver defenders. It appears the only way is to simply hit the open looks the Thunder appear to be openly ceding.
Diaw isn’t a flashy defender but he’s effective in that, like his offensive awareness, he knows how to use his teammates as building blocks around him. In last season’s stunning defensive assignment and work on LeBron James, he forced James into the middle of the floor repeatedly, making use of the rest of the Spurs defense. HIs combination sneaky length and strength helps his chest his defenders into positions they’re not comfortable with. James on several occasions attempts to bully past Diaw but he redirects James just enough to cause a missed shot or forced kick-out.
The Spurs don’t use Diaw as a shut-down defender like an Andre Iguodala or Tony Allen but his versatility allows them to smartly force opposing players into specific zones, zones that Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter own. The Spurs’ defense is, on a per-48 minute basis, a +2.4 points per 100 possessions better when Diaw is on the court.
In this series, Russell Westbrook has dominated the ball as he is wont to do but he has blown by every single Spurs defender. With Kawhi Leonard stuck on Durant, there is no amount of Parker, Green or Ginobili that will stand a chance. Diaw probably won’t, for that matter but it’s an interesting method with which they slowed down LeBron by forcing off-rhythm jumpers.
Of course, this is easier said than done when Westbrook is barreling down the court in fighter jet mode. Whether or not Diaw can make enough open jumpers to make the Thunder pay for their defensive negligence or force Westbrook and Ibaka into enough forced misses, it’s been an astounding turnaround for a player deemed unworthy of a roster spot on an awful Bobcats squad.