How Boris Diaw Shut Down LeBron James in Game 5 of NBA Finals

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How Boris Diaw Shut Down LeBron James in Game 5 of NBA Finals

Game-changers often come in the unlikeliest of forms.

In Game 5 against the Miami Heat, one came in the form of a 31-year-old, 235-pound Boris Diaw for the San Antonio Spurs.

Formerly an NBA misfit, Diaw has found a home in San Antonio. He's bought into Gregg Popovich's system and ideals, accepted his role and flourished, even in the NBA Finals.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Diaw was incredible defensively in Game 5.

Rarely is scoring 2.4 points, grabbing 1.6 rebounds and dishing out 1.4 assists in 14.9 minutes per contest considered prosperous. Being an impactful cog in a championship machine is, though, and that's exactly what Diaw was in Game 5.

Numbers aren't everything for Diaw, or the Spurs as a whole, for that matter. His value isn't always in his stat lines. Instead, it's in his newfound effort and accountable diligence that rendered him a LeBron James stopper in Game 5.

Pick your jaw up off the floor, wipe the tears off your eyes and drivel off your lips, because I'm not kidding. Nothing has ever been less funny.

Alright, that's not true. On some levels this is comical, though not necessarily hysterical. Ironic—that's the word we're looking for.

Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have taken turns (successfully) defending LeBron at different points of the series. Equally as impressive, but not at all surprising. They're known as strong defenders, physical savants who could make life difficult on LeBron.

But Diaw? In the Spurs' most important victory of the series? Have we entered some alternate universe where the unthinkable is possible?

Diaw has never been depicted as an incapable defender—more like lazy. Someone with his versatile skill set is actually able to effectively defend all five positions when the work ethic is there. And in Game 5, the assiduity was certainly there.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Diaw didn't make the going easy on LeBron in Game 5. Not even close.

Per Kurt Heilin of NBC Sports' ProBasketBallTalk, LeBron shot just 1-of-8 from the floor when guarded by Diaw, or 12.5 percent.

“Boris is a pretty good defender,” Tony Parker said after the game, according to Heilin. “He looks awkward, but he gets the job done. Every time in Europe he guards guys like that, the Kirilenkos, stuff like that, the fours who can’t really move."

Parker went on to admit Leonard has done a fantastic job on LeBron, and he has. Inserting Diaw into the defensive equation is designed to give LeBron varying looks, help prevent him from getting into a rhythm.

Also, we're more than three games deep now. LeBron is fully aware that he needs to attack the basket. His execution isn't always perfect, but (for the most part) his mindset is where it needs to be. Fourteen of his 22 shots in Game 5 came in the paint. He made only five (35.7 percent), but he was getting near the rim regularly.

LeBron's Game 5 shot chart via NBA.com.

When LeBron is levying an assault against the rim, Leonard's lanky 225-pound frame isn't always going to hold up. Diaw's voluminous 235-pound bulk will.

On LeBron, Diaw wasn't suffocating him or daring him to create off the dribble. He would stand back, give LeBron his space. If he put the ball on the floor, Diaw's body was there. If he elected to shoot, Diaw would use his long arms to recover and contest the shot. And it worked. It all just worked.

During a six-minute run spanning between the third and fourth quarters, the Spurs outscored the Heat 21-2. LeBron played every second of that stretch while Diaw logged more than five-and-a-half minutes, most of which were spent defending The Chosen One, who was 0-for-4 from the field in that time.

It wasn't only the one stretch, either. Every time Diaw was on the floor, he played LeBron methodically.

Journey back to early in the second quarter when the Heat were down 12:

Mario Chalmers gives the rock to James, who's just inside the arc. Diaw, meanwhile is more than an arm's length away from him.

Seeing this space, LeBron makes like he's going to his left:

Diaw shifts his feet, but doesn't commit to defending the lateral dribble. He remains a healthy distance away from James, who picks up his dribble seeing that Diaw won't come close enough for him to go around him.

Now LeBron has two options, he can either 1) take a contested jumper or 2) dish the ball off. He opts for the latter, sending it back to Chalmers:

Recognizing LeBron no longer has possession, Diaw crowds him in an attempt to cut off any off-ball movement:

Chalmers makes like he's going to use LeBron as a screen, but instead cuts off to his right, shedding Gary Neal:

Inching over is Diaw, to cut off his penetration. He's not about to relinquish an easy layup to Chalmers.

Unfortunately, Neal cannot be counted on to defend LeBron for obvious reasons, so Diaw must ensure he remains between Chalmers and the basket on his right side, not left. Which he does:

Staying on the right allows Diaw enough time to slide into the middle should Chalmers kick it back to a cutting LeBron and contest his shot at the rim. Miami's point man opts to go right at Diaw and good ol' "awkward" Boris comes up with the block.

No, this wasn't one of LeBron's seven misses when being defended by Diaw, but the best defense can result in no shot at all.

In real time.

By precisely positioning himself in each of the stages of this play, Diaw cuts off LeBron's path to the basket, forces the ball out of his hands and provides the help that culminates in a block at the rim. 

Had LeBron gotten off a shot attempt, he would have been hoisting one up from the perimeter—where he was 3-of-8 on the night—or face a waiting Diaw at the rim off a pass from Chalmers. Neither of those are what you would consider good looks.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Diaw did a better than good job on LeBron in Game 5.

The way Diaw defended LeBron was Shane Battier-esque. Relying on his quick feet or subpar athleticism wouldn't have done him any good. He placed stock in his intelligible spacing, eliminating the primary strengths of a player that has no readily discernible weaknesses. 

That's all Diaw can do; it's all anyone could do. It's also more than the Spurs could ever ask for.

No one can stop LeBron. I say that not while standing on a soapbox, cloaked head-to-toe in LeBron James apparel. It's simply a fact. Teams can only hope to contain him, and sometimes that doesn't even work. He notched 25 points in Game 5 despite an ugly shooting performance, after all.

Without Diaw meticulously defending LeBron, his point total would have been even higher. The outcome of the game—that 21-2 run changed everything—may even have been different. Who knows?

“I think it gives a different look for LeBron. Kawhi (Leonard) is doing a great job," Parker said after the win. "The whole team we’re trying to do a good job. I think Boris, we have confidence in him that for a couple of minutes he can do a good job.”

For more than a few minutes, Diaw did a great job.

 

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