Admittedly, Boris Diaw does not look like a human being who would be impactful to an NBA Finals game in 2014.
He is – shall we say – slightly rotund. Not obese, by any stretch of the imagination, just … kind of doughy, like a cookie that’s been removed from the oven a few minutes early. He possesses no edges, merely an assortment of rounded corners, and there is a certain ampleness to his backside; his is a junky trunk that is hard to miss. He does not glide with the quickness we have come to expect from the modern NBA player. An apt description of his movement would be “lumbering.” A less-tactful one would be “slow.”
Additionally, he does not score many points, collect many rebounds or block many shots.
And he is French. Incredibly French.
So yes, there are a lot of strikes against Boris Babacar Diaw-Riffiod. He should not be playing a role of any sort in these NBA Finals, let alone pivotal one. And yet, he has become a lynchpin of the San Antonio Spurs’ success. Tuesday night’s Game 3 proved that, and if the same holds true in tonight’s Game 4, the Spurs will establish a stranglehold on the series.
How has Diaw done it? By becoming a Plus-Minus Machine. It’s a stat that came from the NHL, one that measures the point differential – the difference in points scored for a team and points scored against – when a certain player is on the court, but all you need to know is this: the Spurs are better when Diaw’s on the floor. And no doubt aware of this fact, San Antonio coach (and gruff paternal figure) Gregg Popovich made the decision to change his lineup for Game 3, starting Boris in place of center Tiago Splitter. As you’ve probably heard by now, the results of that decision were dramatic.
The Spurs offense seemingly activated several Game Informer cheat codes and quickly turned the game into a blowout, setting an NBA Finals record by shooting 75.8 percent in the first half and coasting to a 111- 92 win over Miami. Despite scoring a pedestrian 9 points, grabbing 5 boards and dishing out only 3 assits, guess who led the Spurs in plus-minus for the game? Boris Diaw, at +20.
But on a team where Duncan, Parker and Ginobili get the headlines, how does Diaw stir the Spurs’ drink? By passing the ball. Like, a lot. Despite his tendency to rumble around the court – terrifying and wide – Diaw has elite court vision and a delicate passing ability.
When the ball finds its way to him on offense, it’s clear that his first and very primal instinct is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. He passes so much, in fact, that it got him waived by the cellar-dwelling Charlotte Bobcats in March 2012, with then-coach Paul Silas deriding Diaw’s style of play as “very disturbing” (and Paul knew a lot about disturbing play, after all, the ‘Cats would set an NBA record for the worst winning-percentage that year).
Set adrift in waiver-wire purgatory, the Spurs moved quickly to snatch him up. Popovich has always valued ball movement and unselfish play on offense, and believed that Diaw’s predilection for finding the open man, seen as a cancer in Charlotte, would be a catalyst in San Antonio, where the bounty of scoring options would enable Diaw’s court vision to shine.
As usual, Popovich was right. After grabbing Diaw off the waiver wire two years ago, the Spurs’ already pass-heavy offense has hit new levels of unselfishness. This year in particular, the Spurs rode that Diaw-enhanced ball movement to the boast one of the league’s most-efficient offenses. Most of their best five-man lineups this year featured Diaw.
And the trend has continued into these NBA Finals, leading to such gems as this no-look feed from Diaw to Duncan in Game 1:
Of course, like most cogs in the Spurs machine, Diaw’s dependent on the system. Like the sensitive and sulky Roy Hibbert, his level of engagement seems directly proportional to his level of utilization. Respect and emphasize his skill set, like the 2006-2008 Phoenix Suns did (and the Spurs do today), and you will get a uniquely productive player capable of making your offense sing. De-emphasize it and dull his competitive edge, and you get Fat, Depressed Boris, as Charlotte experienced when Diaw emerged from his 2011 lockout siesta with approximately 50 pounds of lardon stuffed inside his uni.
Thankfully for the Spurs, they’ve gotten the former and not the latter. His unselfish presence and tendency to quickly get rid of the ball are infectious, and a perfect fit. Even if his assist totals aren’t gaudy, the ball does not “stick” – as Popovich is fond of saying – when Diaw is in the game. Instead, it swings from side-to-side with ease, and 1-on-1 play all but ceases. The prototypical selfless, team-first Spurs approach truly takes root when Diaw is on the court.
Just keep him clear of the crepes.