The Spurs’ Other MVP

The NBA Finals have been decided and Kawhi Leonard helped lead his San Antonio Spurs to a championship after being named Finals MVP.

San Antonio was looking for revenge after last season’s disappointing Game 7 loss in the Finals and that was the main theme that took the attention of the series. The quiet small forward also had a loud game with dunks and put backs that killed momentum the Miami Heat were trying to build. While Leonard and teammates Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker were getting the majority of the attention for the series, there’s also another MVP of the Spurs that changed the series with his play.

During the first two games of the series, Coach Gregg Popovich went with his usual traditional starting lineup consisting of Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, Duncan, and center Tiago Splitter. After a close 98-96 loss to the Heat in Game 2, Pop decided to tweak his lineup by substituting Splitter for backup Boris Diaw. The French backup forward/center didn’t see much time as the starting center, but he did change the outlook of the series with the move.

When Splitter was starting, the Spurs had a more defensive minded lineup with two big men protecting the rim and rebounding. The Heat had were countering that from the beginning with a shooting lineup consisting of Rashard Lewis and Chris Bosh in the frontcourt and forcing Duncan and Splitter to move out of the paint for LeBron James for easier baskets. Tiago averaged 8ppg and 5rpg during those first two contests, but his defense was not a factor as the Spurs would like with him pulled from the paint and his man playing underneath the basket on defense with Splitter’s lack of shooting. The offense was slow paced and the defense looked confused.

Pop gave it two looks and we got Diaw starting at center for Game 3. The Heat stayed with its original Finals shooting lineup until Game 5, but they had no answers for Popovich’s game plan.

Once Diaw started the game, the whole DNA of the starting lineup for San Antonio changed. While Splitter moved off the ball and set screens, Diaw allowed the Spurs to run the offense through him through many different scenarios. He could take bigger guys off the dribble or shoot a three pointer over them if they gave him room. If they put on lighter or smaller guys on him during switches, he could post them up with ease unlike Splitter. His quick feet and soft touch around the paint forced the Heat to think too long about double teaming or allowing Diaw to get his points in a one on one game.

There’s another dimension to Diaw’s game which put the Spurs over the top from the get go. While the Spurs didn’t always hold a strong lead at the beginning of Games 3-5 with Diaw starting, they didn’t lose a beat, become stagnant, or worry about the Heat building too big of a lead. His passing was the major advantage that really helped the Spurs’ offense become unstoppable this series.

If Diaw chose to post up, he could pass it out to the open shooter if help came. His quick feet also helped the Spurs move the ball within two dribbles and numerous passes to find the best shot available. He forced the whole defense to move around and try to chase the ball instead of guarding the player himself. The Miami defense was forced to play on fumes early on with the passing that Diaw brought to the starting unit and that forced them to become one dimensional on offense without energy in their legs. He also had a brilliant alley-oop pass to MVP Leonard that only he could’ve made in that position.

While his passing put the Spurs over the top, Diaw’s defense cannot be ignored in this conversation either. He’s one of the few big men who can play all five positions on the court on both ends. His versatility helped Pop switch him on LeBron James at times when Leonard got into foul trouble or took a rest. His quick feet and girth helped neutralize James into tough shots and helped get in the way of clean passes. An overlooked play on the court is that Diaw’s defensive versatility also helped San Antonio become a quick and tough defensive team with the shooting guard, small forward, and power forward positions. Green, Leonard, and Diaw could now guard each other’s players and could switch onto James to kill any transition basket with minimal help.

This helped keep the pressure off the Spurs to over think the offense because of the worry of transition defense against the Heat and easy dunks by James. With Diaw, Green, and Leonard shooting beyond the arc, they were in great position to get back and defend when the ball was in the air and they could switch to any player depending on what part of the court they were. This took the pressure of getting a mismatch of Tim Duncan guarding a more quicker guard or forward and getting a foul in the process.

Boris Diaw’s quiet game has made him gone overlooked these NBA Finals, but he made a strong case for Finals MVP if you tuned into his play on the court. His versatility and smart play made him a mismatch against every player on the Heat and even took his shot at guarding LeBron James on numerous occasions. There’s not many players that can say they had a advantage against the majority of the Miami Heat players on both sides of the floor like Diaw.

His quiet versatile game makes him the underrated MVP for his team and was one of the biggest reasons why the San Antonio Spurs dominated the 2014 NBA Finals.