When word first trickled out that Tiago Splitter wouldn't be starting for the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the assumption was that Boris Diaw would get the nod from Gregg Popovich:
And rightfully so. His effort against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night (14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists) helped the Spurs dodge a complete massacre in Game 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena. More importantly, Diaw's perimeter shooting—40.2 percent from three during the regular season—and overall skill were just what Pop ordered in his quick quest to neutralize Serge Ibaka and open up the floor for San Antonio's precise attack.
So, "naturally", Matt Bonner, who also contributed to narrowing OKC's lead in Game 4, started up front next to Tim Duncan. Aside from his four missed shots and two personal fouls, the "Red Mamba" didn't register a single stat of note during his 17 minutes.
Not that the Spurs were any worse for Bonner's wear. All they did was stomp the Thunder in the Alamo City, 117-89, to take a 3-2 lead in this swinging pendulum of a series.
And all Diaw did was shine in a reserve role. The soft-bellied Frenchman sprinkled the stat sheet with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists (and two "hockey assists"), a steal and a block during his 28 minutes on the court. Of the 13 Spurs who set foot on the floor on Thursday, only Kawhi Leonard (plus-22) logged a better plus-minus rating than Diaw's plus-19.
But even that only hints at the impact Diaw had on this game for San Antonio, as he had a hand in nearly every pivotal moment for the Spurs.
When OKC seemed to take control of the proceedings in the first quarter with its speed, length and athleticism, it was Diaw who helped to stem the tide. He hit fellow super-sub Manu Ginobili, who finished with 19 points and six assists, for an easy finish on one possession and then spun his way around Nick Collison and under the outstretched arms of Steven Adams for an acrobatic layup of his own on the next.
When the Thunder were practically neck-and-neck in the second frame, Diaw stepped in to create some separation. On a single sequence in the middle of the quarter, Diaw stole a sloppy pass from Adams, collected a carom off a Tim Duncan miss, drew a foul on Ibaka and nailed a 25-footer to expand the Spurs' tenuous cushion to five.
And when the Spurs were really ready to create some separation in the waning moments of the first half, it was Diaw who made plays all over the floor—stuffing Kevin Durant (25 points) on one end and finding Leonard on the other for a three-pointer that put San Antonio ahead 60-49.
The Spurs ended the half with a 65-55 advantage, all but securing the victory therein; according to Grantland's Bill Barnwell, San Antonio hadn't lost when leading by double digits at the half in two years:
Apparently, that effort was enough to earn Diaw a spot ahead of Bonner in Popovich's "Fave Five" after the break. "My approach was the same, trying to space the floor," said Diaw of his second-half start to reporters (and a national TV audience) after the game. "That's what we've been talking about before the game, obviously, and that was the biggest adjustment we made from the past two games to this one.
"I had in mind to shoot the ball when I was open, so we could space them."
And space them they did. The Spurs shot a scorching 13-of-26 from beyond the arc. That included Diaw's pair, the second of which stretched San Antonio's lead back to 14 points with just under five minutes to play in the third period.
It would seem an obvious choice, then, for Pop to reward Diaw's diligence with his first start of these playoffs in Game 6 on Saturday. The Spurs will need their best from the outset in OKC if they're to stave off what figures to be a furious Thunder rally from the get-go and nail down the first set of consecutive Western Conference crowns in franchise history.
Then again, Diaw worked so well with San Antonio's second unit on Thursday night that perhaps Popovich will keep things the way they were to start Game 5. Bonner may not have done much as a starter, but that didn't deter the Spurs from thrashing the Thunder anyway.
Still, San Antonio would do well to put its best foot forward. The Spurs have lost their last nine contests in OKC, including the two that allowed the Thunder to pull even in this series.
Pop can play coy all he wants, but if the Spurs are going to ensure that last year's NBA Finals heartbreak isn't followed up by a similar shortfall in this year's conference finals, he'll have Diaw ready to work his magic from the opening tip.
At least, that's what one would assume.
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