Boris Diaw's unlikely arc of triumph

Originally Published: June 15, 2014
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- It's a frontcourt partnership that will remind no one of the David-and-Timmy glory days.

It's a tag team likewise unable to trigger the handy rhyming properties of Small Ball.

It's an alignment Gregg Popovich rather unimaginatively refers to as Medium Ball, this pairing of Boris Diaw next to Tim Duncan that, for all the T-shirts it won't inspire, has merely changed the course of the 2014 NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard is routinely referred to as the future face of the franchise in the Alamo City, so his brilliance at both ends in Games 3 and 4 in Miami, if not exactly expected, didn't quite shock the world either. Yet pretty much no one, not even the biggest Diaw devotees back home in France, came into these Finals touting the 32-year-old as a pendulum-swinger.

[+] EnlargeBoris Diaw
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesNow you see it, now you don't. Spurs power forward Boris Diaw looks off defenders with a bit of Magic.

Especially not a full eight years removed from his Most Improved Player award season in Phoenix, nor a mere two years since his flabby low point in Charlotte.

But that's where we are entering Sunday's Game 5 back here in South Texas. When both Leonard and Diaw are in full flow, LeBron James has to guard one of them. When both are doing damage, more importantly, LeBron can't guard Tony Parker, which is the wrinkle that the Spurs quietly believe -- more than anything -- cost them the epic 2013 Finals that went seven games.

The beauty of Medium Ball is that Diaw, who replaced Tiago Splitter as Duncan's sidekick in the starting lineup for Game 3, has enough size to punish Miami's celebrated small-ballers, along with sufficient foot speed to keep up with them.

Of course, Diaw typically couldn't have been less impressed with himself in the wake of San Antonio's 21-point Game 4 triumph on the road Thursday night, as you can hear in our brief postgame visit on ESPN Radio.

So in conjunction with ESPN Insider's Amin Elhassan, we've turned to some of the folks who've known Boris best through the ups and downs of his 11-year NBA career to try to make sense of his unlikely emergence as a Finals momentum-changer.


Air France

One of the more surprising aspects of the Diaw story is the way that his biggest fans, before they start dissecting the way he's sneaked up on the Heat this week, are so keen to remind you that they once gushed over his athletic gifts.

You read right.

Absolutely gushed.

There was a time that Boris Babacar Diaw-Riffiod, target of all those #croissant jabs on Twitter, was regarded as a supreme athlete.

"People don't know how athletic he is," said Charlotte Hornets pro scouting director Todd Quinter, who was a key member of the Suns' front office for 26 seasons from 1986-2011.

"When we acquired Boris in 2006, he was probably the fastest guy on the team from end to end. He could also really leap. Yet somehow he doesn't rely on his athleticism to get things done. It's almost like he uses it as a last resort."

You hear similar tales of awe from those who were with Diaw in Atlanta too.

"Everybody loves the chase-down block that LeBron is so good at, right?" Stotts said. "When we were watching video of [Diaw] before we drafted him, I can't tell you how many of those we saw. He's deceptively athletic with great timing and instincts. He has a wingspan that's deceptive too."

The capper comes from Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, who, like Quinter, was an integral part of the Suns' front-office team when Diaw was acquired in a sign-and-trade for Joe Johnson orchestrated by then-Suns personnel chief Bryan Colangelo.

"Boris walks into the gym one day wearing flip-flops and holding his customary cappuccino, which was a staple for him every morning," Griffin recalled. "It was during pre-draft workouts, so he sees the Vertec [machine] and asks what it is.

"We tell him it measures your vertical leap by determining how many of the bars you can touch. He asks what's the highest anyone has ever gone, and we tell him Amare' [Stoudemire] cleared the entire rack.

"Boris puts down the cappuccino, takes off his flip-flops and clears the entire rack on the first try. Then he calmly puts his flip-flops back on, picks up his cappuccino and walks away, saying, 'That was not difficult.'"


The French Magic Johnson

The myth is somewhat exaggerated. The Atlanta Hawks really didn't draft Diaw with the belief they were getting a 6-foot-8 point guard.

He was undoubtedly billed as the closest thing France would ever have to a Magic, in terms of size and playmaking instinct, but Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts -- who coached Diaw as a rookie in Atlanta -- insists that the Hawks pegged him "as a point forward more so than a point guard."

[+] EnlargeBoris Diaw
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBoris Diaw showed promise during his first season in the NBA but really began to blossom in 2006 in Phoenix.

"He was a three man," Stotts said, "but we played him as a point forward with Jason Terry and Dion Glover in the backcourt. He'd initiate the offense, and it was obvious that he had a high basketball IQ. He picked up things as fast as any rookie I've ever been around.

"We didn't bring him in for a [pre-draft] workout, but he was always in the mix. We really liked him. [ACC star] Josh Howard was still on the board, but we just felt like Boris was the best basketball player with all the things he could do.

"He wasn't a bad shooter when we got him. He just didn't shoot very often. And, to be honest, I thought he was always very underrated defensively. It seemed like he was always in the right place at the right time. I think more and more people are becoming aware of it now."

Truth be told, though, family members were as much the inspiration as Magic for all those playmaking things Diaw can do.

As Diaw recently explained to our own Doris Burke, it was his mother -- former French national teamer Elisabeth Rioffod -- who forcefully explained that the game is only fun if the other four players on your team are involved. And it was his older brother Martin, Boris says, who made him the passer he is by demanding that his little brother get the ball to him every time down.


Let Boris be Boris

The way Griffin's cappuccino tale ends also happens to capture the highly casual nature Diaw brings not only to the job but also to life.

You could convince some of his past coaches, starting with Paul Silas back in Charlotte, that Diaw actually was the Frenchman who invented the Gallic Shrug.

The trouble is problems tend to bubble up from that casual nature if Diaw lands with a team that doesn't understand and accept his unique approach.

"Boris is the kind of guy you have to judge by results and not necessarily by how he gets there, particularly if his path diverges from the way you want it done," Griffin said. "You can't pound him into a role. You have to let him grow into his role organically."

In Atlanta after Stotts' departure, and especially in Charlotte after Silas replaced Larry Brown and the Bobcats sank to the historic depths of 7-59, Diaw frustrated those around him far more often than he dazzled.

"I think passers are underrated in this league," Quinter said. "Also, Boris can get bored, especially if he's asked to fit into a box. And when he's bored, he can be difficult."

Said former teammate Raja Bell, who saw the best of Diaw in Phoenix before both were dealt to Charlotte in December 2008: "His skill set and his value, quite frankly, get lost on bad teams. I think after a while he shuts down on them."

In a sit-down earlier this week on ESPN Radio, Parker referred to the Hawks and then-Bobcats as "tough teams" rather than bad. The implication being, as Bell suggested, that it was tough for his national-team colleague to stay plugged in with a team that wasn't going to share the ball and dig in defensively ... though that doesn't absolve him from the weight and conditioning issues that so rankled Silas.

It also must be noted that even the seemingly easiest of teams to play for, captained by Parker himself, hasn't been immune to spells of Bored Boris. It was just a year ago, in Game 2 of the 2013 Finals against the Heat, that Diaw's 11 scoreless (and rebound-less) minutes landed him right in the Gregg Popovich doghouse. Diaw got a DNP-CD in Game 3 and was never the factor in those Finals that he has been in this series.

"It's important for Boris to like who he plays with," Griffin said. "Part of why he did so well with us [in Phoenix] was because he was around so many like-minded people in Nash, [Grant] Hill, Bell, [Leandro] Barbosa, etc."


Worth the weight

Without much elaboration, Parker acknowledges that Diaw is indeed aware of the unkind comments routinely made about his physique. Steve Nash, furthermore, concedes that he and some of Diaw's old Suns teammates were themselves guilty of busting on Boris about it to his face.

"You know how locker room banter can be," Nash said.

Parker He takes [this] serious. This year, he took a chef. He got healthy, took care of his body, and you see the difference. He's been playing great basketball for us."

-- Spurs guard Tony Parker on Boris Diaw

But both of these Hall of Fame-bound point guards, two of the biggest Boris fans you'll find, insist that the quipsters and hashtaggers on the outside never give Diaw his due.

"He takes [this] serious," Parker told ESPN Radio. "This year, he took a chef. He got healthy, took care of his body, and you see the difference. He's been playing great basketball for us."

Said Nash: "He slimmed down a lot this year, actually. He's always got that stigma he's out of shape, but I don't think that's fair."

Added Quinter: "We sent a trainer to accompany Boris one summer when he was playing for the French national team. The trainer comes back when the event is over and says Boris is in fantastic shape. Boris comes back to Phoenix after about two weeks, lifts up his shirt, and everyone is flabbergasted. How do you add that much weight in two weeks?

"But the reality is that he has almost always played well, whatever his weight is. The most important thing for him has always been his conditioning. His stamina."

"This series [against Miami] obviously shows he can play a lot of minutes and be effective," Stotts said. "Regardless of what you think of his weight, he's an effective four man."


'That's what you think'

It must be especially satisfying for Diaw, after all the jabs he's taken since his Phoenix heyday some seven seasons ago, to be flirting with triple-doubles and making such an impact on the biggest stage in the sport.

Right?

"I don't think he cares, to be honest with you," Parker said.

Added Bell: "Boris isn't wired the way most NBA narcissists are ... not excluding myself. He doesn't let a whole lot affect him."

Perhaps no one explains it better than Barbosa, who offered: "Everything for Boris was always, 'It's OK.' He never gets mad. It's hard to explain. He's not scared or intimidated. He's just ... Boris."

Which leads us to Nash's favorite Boris story. Or what folks from the Seven Seconds Or Less days refer to as the "That's What You Think" story ... which sounds even better when Nash says it with his attempt at a French accent.

"He kept driving to the hoop, and he'd basically be right on top of the rim and kicking it out to the corner for a 3 instead of just laying it in," Nash said. "I don't know if he didn't want to get fouled and go to the line or if he just didn't want to shoot, but we couldn't take it any more.

"I yelled at him, Raja yelled at him, everyone was yelling at him: 'Borrrrris! Just f------ lay it in. You're right on top of the rim. We need your points, man. Don't you understand? The layup is wide open!'

And he just said: 'That's what you think.'

"You know what? In looking back, maybe he was right. It was infuriating at the time, but when you watch him play, you realize that he sees things other people don't see. Such a smart, smart player."


French Connection

Parker and Diaw rebounded from last June's Finals heartbreak to lead France, international basketball's perennial tease, to the European Championships gold medal they had been chasing for a decade.

[+] EnlargeFlorent Pietrus and Boris Diaw
Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty ImagesBoris Diaw, right, hoists the trophy after France's victory in the EuroBasket Championships in September. Is the Larry O'Brien trophy next?

For Diaw now, there is just one meaningful target left.

"The only thing missing," Parker said Diaw told him in the aftermath of the Euro breakthrough, "is an NBA championship."

It's only one win away now. Popovich is a year wiser when it comes to getting Diaw's best. Boris has a clearer picture of what it takes to satisfy Pop's sky-high standards. And the advent of what Pop is calling Medium Ball is leading to outbursts such as the one we saw in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, when Diaw delivered a difference-making 26 points to lift San Antonio to a series-clinching triumph on the road ... all while Parker was forced to watch the second half from the bench to nurse a bad left ankle.

Diaw's move into the starting lineup for Game 3 in Miami, meanwhile, has arguably done as much to transform the course of this series as Kawhi Leonard's forceful response to a super quiet first two games in San Antonio.

In Game 4, at his all-around best, Diaw finished with a tidy 8 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. He's averaging 34.5 minutes per game against the Heat, compared to a mere 25.0 minutes during the regular season, which has allowed him to regularly leave the impression, at the very least, that he's the most versatile frontcourt sidekick we've ever seen parked next to Tim Duncan.

"He's very motivated," Parker said. "I've known him since I was like 14 years old. It's just kind of crazy to play with your best friend at this stage. To be able to win with the national team and then hopefully with the Spurs, it's like a dream."

Said an admiring Griffin from afar: "They embrace the fact that he marches to his own beat, and they don't try to pound him into a predetermined role. Pop recognizes and respects Boris' talent, and as a result, Boris respects Pop and plays for him."

Added Stotts: "He's unselfish to a fault. I'm sure everyone will tell you that he turns down layups to make a pass, but I think with time he's grown to understand how important it is for him to be an offensive threat.

"In our [second-round] series, Game 1 was as aggressive as I've ever seen him as an offensive player. Posting up, driving to the basket, shooting 3s. When he's effective doing all that, it sets up everybody else.

"He's 32 years old now, and he's very, very smart. He's gonna figure out what helps a team win. He really does know what a team needs. He's done it for the French national team and for the Suns, and now he's doing it for San Antonio. He's a winning player."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.