There are plenty of players more qualified than San Antonio Spurs' Boris Diaw to defend LeBron James. Many have comparable athleticism (Paul George, Andre Iguodala), many have long arms to shut off his driving angles (Kawhi Leonard), and many have length (Kevin Durant) to bother his shot. The best defenders have a combination of the aforementioned attributes.
But even the most qualified defenders, the "graduates" of the LeBron James defensive academy, struggle in plugging the many facets of James' game. He's too well rounded — he can destroy any competent defender with a quick drive to the bucket or, with one brilliant cross-court pass, he can start a comparably deadly series of help rotations.
Diaw, meanwhile, is six-foot-8 — James' height — but he's laterally challenged and rarely guards players of All-NBA talent.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has generally pinned the tall task of defending James on Leonard during the NBA Finals. Popovich also trusted Diaw, mostly to give Leonard a much needed breather and to preserve Danny Green from the inevitable physical beating. Diaw exceeded even the most optimistic expectations in a mismatch of this order, so he drew even more defensive responsibility than anyone realistically expected.
"I feel he did a great job," Leonard said. "He was being physical with him in the post. They are about the same size. We still have another game to get and we have to do the same job that we did tonight."
Leonard may have undersold Diaw's defense, though. James made just one of eight shots against Diaw, compared to 7-of-14 shooting against other defenders according to ESPN Stats & Information. Diaw didn't force the issue, instead giving James plenty of space to shoot. James' first four shots were mid-range shots, all misses, and even when he tried to establish interior position he struggled (0-for-3 against Diaw).
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wasn't surprised with Popovich's tactical adjustment. He instead chalked up Miami's offensive struggles — in a relative sense, they still managed an excellent 111.3 points per 100 possessions in Game 5 — to execution or the lack thereof.
"Offensively we weren't very good tonight," Spoelstra said. "There were times where we crawled back into it, but we were not very efficient, did not move the ball the way we needed to, didn't have the necessary patience in those key times, end of the first, end of the third. But we've seen basically every matchup. They've put their bigs on our wings, and at times we're switching matchups. So we've seen it. We just weren't executing with any kind of precision."
Diaw's resume — he was waived by a team that won just seven games last year before latching onto the Spurs — is not typical of a LeBron James defender. Yet at this juncture, resumes are irrelevant. Results are much more important.