Boris Diaw's unlikely arc of triumph


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 lacking 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.

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."

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