Boris Diaw and his magic act against LeBron James
MIAMI — In basketball’s down time, twitter is gold. It’s full of observations and inside jokes to pass time in between games, and the running jokes in the NBA are a constant source of
often sophomoric entertainment. Monta Eillis having it all. J.R. Smith’s shooting efficiency. Carmelo Anthony’s shooting efficiency. The Knicks. JaVale McGee.
And then there’s Boris Diaw’s inflation rate. Whether it’s a French pastry joke you fancy or a comparison to a landlocked sea mammal you utilize (‘Land Walrus’), the hilarity never ceases, does it? But it’s his nickname among the Chinese that’s perhaps most apropos to the style of basketball for which he’s best known.
Not only has the ‘French Magician’ impacted this series with his patented creativity on offense, but after the impact he had defensively in Game 5, maybe ‘Shao Tao’ (The Glove) should be his next moniker from overseas. Of course I kid, and I apologize for such a terrible joke, but it shouldn’t be understated: Boris Diaw defended the hell out of LeBron James on Sunday, and it could be the out-of-nowhere matchup that has a major ripple effect tonight.
That’s not to say OH HEY BORIS DIAW CAN GUARD LEBRON JAMES! He can’t. Put the two on an island and James will blow by Diaw nearly every time. But this is a team game, and the combination of Boris’ length, quickness, girth and backup defenders makes him a serviceable presence in the individual defense of James. And it’s that length that affords him the ability to guard LeBron to some extent.
According to NBA.com’s video archives, James didn’t score one field goal when Diaw was guarding him straight up on Sunday. (I’ve read and heard comments to the contrary on this, so please let me know if I’m missing something here.) There was a layup on Duncan, a 3-pointer out of a scramble and a fast-break dunk while Boris was on the floor, but nothing on Diaw when the two were isolated. On top of that, James was 5-for-9 from the floor with a ridiculous 61.1 effective field-goal percentage and a true-shooting percentage of better than 70 when Diaw was on the bench. But in the 25 minutes the two shared the court together, LeBron went 3-for-13 with a 26.9 effective field-goal percentage and a 28.8 true-shooting percentage. Those numbers stick out intensely.
In 1-on-1 situations — moments in which Diaw’s plump presence should inspire a voracious appetite to attack for a physical specimen like James — Boris stands back, doing the best he can to drop his butt back in the paint and eliminate any angle LeBron might have. At the same time, he reaches one arm out as far as it will extend, shadowing James’ face and eliminating as much immediate air space as possible. And all the while, Diaw is giving himself one full King-sized step to allow for recovery in case James drives.
And it has worked. For now, I guess. James was affected by the presence of the ‘French Magician’ and the size equality he brought to the table. The MVP is masterful when using his 260-pound frame to blow up smaller forwards and guards when he penetrates, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, despite their quickness, have no chance once LeBron bulldozes his way into the paint. But Boris can absorb the contact.
On this play, James drives hard with his left hand and lowers his right shoulder into Diaw’s chest. It’s the same type of play that’s sent Green careening into the row of baseline photographers several times during this series, but Boris takes the immediate impact and recovers. What’s even more important, James isn’t able to continue his train of momentum toward the basket. He may have knocked Diaw back on his heels, but his progress was stopped as well.
And whenever James is able to get to his spots on the floor, Boris has been there to contest. The paint is constantly congested and the defense is crammed in around LeBron’s penetration and Diaw just eats the space even more (haha, I know), shrinking the windows of opportunity for James to attack.
If anything else, assigning Diaw to the best player in the world allows the Spurs to place their best perimeter defender on the suddenly re-emergent Dwyane Wade. James is a difficult matchup for Leonard when he’s going full-bore, especially given the fact he’s got roughly an inch or two and 40 pounds on the guy. So being able to utilize Leonard elsewhere, namely to slow Wade, was a luxury in Game 5. Gregg Popovich tends to stick with what works, and why not? If the Heat have a plan to counter it, then nobody should be surprised. It’s such a seemingly awkward matchup for San Antonio. If not, it could be the type of adjustment in a small-ball series that makes all the difference.
We’ll just have to see.
Maybe the ‘French Magician’ will pull another rabbit out of his hat. Or a croissant. Or a walrus. You know, whichever you prefer.
Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com.