By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Heading into Game 5 off two straight losses, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made the big adjustment to replace Tiago Splitter in the starting lineup with previously little-used Matt Bonner. As I discussed earlier this week, Ibaka’s presence in the lane was gumming up everything San Antonio wanted to do offensively, so the idea was to use Bonner’s ability to hit the three to draw Ibaka out of the lane. Although Bonner didn’t rise to the occasion, shooting 0-4 for zero points and zero rebounds in his 17 minutes of action, Popovich’s idea was sound, and was instead carried out by reserve big man Boris Diaw.
Diaw finished with the game with 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists, a nice enough stat line, but not something that immediately jumps off the page at you. However, Diaw was 2-2 from behind the arc, which were not only big shots at the time, but also gave Ibaka reason for pause in hanging out in the paint thereafter. You can see on each of Diaw’s two makes, Ibaka was covering him and, as expected, hung back into the lane looking to clog up any potential drives and protect the rim (on the second sequence, Diaw passes up an open shot earlier in the play and then Ibaka and Steven Adams switch, but it’s the same principle).
While helping to stretch the floor, Diaw is also a big enough body to serve as somewhat of a rim protector, as evidenced when he diverted a Kevin Durant dunk attempt here. Popovich prefers to maintain the two-big man line-up rather than try something like Kawhi Leonard at the four for large stretches and Diaw’s play Thursday night allowed the Spurs to maintain that continuity while escaping the Ibaka hellscape the Thunder big man had created defensively. We can see how Popovich noticed the impact Diaw was having on the game, as like many great coaching do, he made an in-game adjustment to begin the second half with Diaw in with the starters rather than go back to Bonner or Splitter.
All of this impact added up to Diaw having the second-best plus/minus on the team in Game 5, with his +19 only behind the +22 of Kawhi Leonard. With the talent levels of these two teams so close and the hall of fame caliber players on each side duking it out, it may very well be which role players step up which will decide the series. Thursday night, it was the big Frenchman for the Spurs who had Oklahoma City calling for surrender.