With apologies to Thunder fans, this is the NBA Finals matchup that everyone wanted, a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game affair between the Heat and the Spurs. With three Hall of Famers in the Spurs’ trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, another four on the Heat’s side in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, two world-class coaches, a rising star in Kawhi Leonard and a host of other intriguing secondary pieces for both teams, there are no shortage of titillating storylines in this series.
There’s plenty to discuss about how each team will defend the other’s stars, and how those stars will respond and attack. But in a series that seems like it could be decided by a coin flip or a miraculous offensive rebound and subsequent backpedaling three-pointer, those secondary pieces are going to be as important as ever, which brings us to Boris Diaw.
At this point, calling Diaw a secondary piece is almost an insult. He’s become a central part of the Spurs’ identity as a key piece of their “Foreign Legion” bench unit, which is scoring 42.7 points per game in the postseason. He’s fit seamlessly into Gregg Popovich’s system since he was picked up in 2012. The fact that a once-overweight big man, cut by the then-Bobcats during the most futile season in NBA history, is now a central piece of a championship contender says all you need to about what landing with the Spurs can do for your career.
After coming into the league as somewhat of a point-forward, Diaw has evolved that role and can do a little bit of everything for San Antonio. When Popovich gave heavy playing time to the lineup of Diaw, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Leonard, it swung Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, and Diaw’s 26 points in the clincher were instrumental to the Spurs holding off the Thunder. Even better, Diaw found his stroke, knocking down 5 of 8 from deep in the final two games of the Western Conference Finals after going 3-11 over the first four games of the series.
Diaw’s presence on the court is going to be crucial as the Spurs combat the Heat’s five-out offense. Last year, Miami rendered Tiago Splitter completely useless, running him off the court with smaller lineups that featured five players who could shoot the rock. While Mike Miller isn’t around to splash shoeless shots this time around, Rashard Lewis has stepped into the starting lineup for Miami, and Shane Battier still lurks as an option off the bench.
For the Spurs, this means that the Splitter-Duncan frontcourt that they painstakingly turned into a workable starting duo will likely be shelved again, as it was for much of the OKC series - Splitter played more than 20 minutes just once, and played just 22 minutes combined in the final two games of the series. The Diaw-Duncan pairing held up well defensively, allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions in the Western Conference Finals, while rebounding grabbing 75.3 percent of the Thunder’s missed shots, per NBA.com.
Against the Heat, who notoriously don’t care about offensive rebounding (29th in the league during the regular season in offensive rebounding percentage), the Spurs don’t really have to worry about getting killed on that end, even though the Duncan-Diaw units were about a percent worse rebounding than the team was as a whole during the regular season.
More important than rebounding will be Diaw’s ability to get out to shooters. With Lewis and Battier figuring to get heavy minutes in order to keep the Heat small, Diaw will be tasked with packing the paint against drives by James and Wade while also being ready to rotate and scramble out to the arc. For all the good that Splitter brings to the defensive end of the floor, what with his 102 defensive rating, 2.1 defensive win shares in just 59 games and 10.3 rebounds per 36 minutes, he’s not the fleetest player on the floor, and asking him to defend shooters on the outside reduces his value drastically.
Diaw’s quick feet certainly help in that regard, and his ability to get out and contest shots helped the Spurs hold OKC to 30.8 percent shooting from behind the arc when he shared the floor with Duncan, per NBA.com.
It’s hard to imagine LeBron going very many possessions without being shadowed by Kawhi, Diaw has had success in slowing James down. According to NBA.com, Diaw guarded James for 28 touches in the regular season and limited him to 2 for 9 shooting. He didn’t commit a foul, and only allowed James to drive the ball three times. That last number - limiting drives - is going to be key, as the Spurs’ defensive strategy last season was the build a human wall around the paint and dare James and Wade to beat them from mid-range.
While Splitter could surely find ways to punish smaller Heat defenders down low, Diaw is a much more versatile tool for the Spurs, assuming Splitter spends as time on the bench as he did in last year’s NBA Finals (15 minutes per game). Diaw was occasionally described as a point guard when he was a draft prospect, and still has those instincts when passing the ball. According to NBA.com’s player tracking, Diaw is third on the team in assist opportunities created per game in the postseason (4.7), and he’s also third in points created off of assists (6.8). Diaw fits perfectly into Popovich’s beautiful tika-taka system, moving the ball to the open man and making smart cuts without the ball.
While Diaw’s shooting is important to the Spurs - Miami will have to respect the 40 percent three-point shooter regardless- perhaps more important will be Diaw’s ability to take advantage of smaller defenders. The Frenchman took it to the Thunder every time they stuck someone smaller or not as strong on him (looking at you, Kevin Durant). More than 29 percent of Diaw’s shots in the Western Conference Finals came off of post-ups (16 of 55), and he was a very strong 9 for 16 (56 percent) on those shot attempts.
While Battier has a reputation as a solid defender, and Lewis did good work guarding David West in the Eastern Conference Finals, Diaw’s girth and quickness (two things you don’t often see put together) could very well give the two of them problems. Diaw post-ups definitely aren’t the Spurs’ first option - they do have those first-ballot shoo-ins and Leonard, after all - but Popovich will certainly let him go to work if the opportunity presents itself, and a sharp passer like Diaw will be able to find shooters as they fly around the perimeter.