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Spurs' ball movement remains key to victory heading into Game 5
0:58 | NBA
Spurs' ball movement remains key to victory heading into Game 5
Monday May 9th, 2016

Get all of Andrew Sharp's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers. This story appeared in the May 9, 2016, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. 

It's not hard to find basketball players who grew up with professional sports in their blood. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were raised by fathers in the NBA. Kobe Bryant's dad played for the 76ers and then in Italy. Tony Parker's father was a star at Loyola of Chicago and had a pro career in Belgium. Spurs reserve forward Boris Diaw is part of this tradition, but with a twist. He grew up learning the game from his mother.

Élisabeth Riffiod starred for the French national team before retiring to raise her family in Bordeaux. When it was time for her two sons to play sports, she pushed them to try everything before basketball. "Those parents that are obsessed with their kids playing a sport, becoming supergood or playing professional," Diaw says, "she was really against that."

So Boris played handball, volleyball, track and field, rugby. Of course he played soccer. He tried fencing too, which is fantastic to imagine now that he's 6'8" and 250 pounds. Boris didn't totally commit to organized basketball until practices forced him to quit judo as a teenager. He retired as an orange belt.

Today he's asked to pick three things that describe him best. He lists traveling, food, photography and movie production. That is more than three things, and not one of them is NBA basketball, but it does lead to a digression on safaris, his favorite vacations: "You go in the middle of the savanna for 10 days, and you feel like you've had a month. It's so peaceful and quiet. Seeing the animals is so calming, in their habitat just sleeping. It's very restful."

We're at a boutique coffee shop in downtown Memphis, in the middle of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We're drinking something called a Hummingbird, which the menu describes as a "lavender honey steamer."

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This is a tradition among Diaw and his San Antonio teammates. On the road they venture to find the city's best coffee shops. "Whether it's a 20-minute drive or just around the corner," guard Patty Mills says, "we keep a record of the cool ones."

When you think of NBA teams on the road, the first thought is not coffee adventures. But the Spurs have always been a little bit different.

I went to Memphis because the Spurs are still different, but they've changed a bit too.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Talk to the Spurs, and they are quick to shower praise on the round, 34-year-old big man who plays like a guard and can defend multiple positions. "He understands spatial relationships on the court," coach Gregg Popovich says. "He can find open people, he can post up for us. He allows us to stay big when the other team goes small. His versatility's real important to us."

Parker, who has known Diaw for nearly 20 years, adds, "Especially against OKC and Golden State, you know they're going to go small, so Boris can be a great advantage." Tim Duncan harks back to a matchup with LeBron James, when the Spurs beat the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. "[Diaw] was a huge deal. You could put him in the post and he was able to make plays."

Intelligence, versatility and unselfishness are the themes that everyone hits. Fellow coffee enthusiast Mills adds disbelief to the list. "From guarding LeBron to hitting a turnaround fadeaway jump shot, there's stuff that he does ... I catch myself thinking 'Why am I so surprised?'" says Mills. "It's fun to watch."

Mind you, Diaw clocked in with 6.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 18.2 minutes a game this season. In the Spurs' 124—92 blowout of the Thunder in the opener of their Western Conference semifinal last Saturday, Diaw nearly replicated that line: six points, four rebounds and four assists in 18 minutes. He's not LeBron or Steph, and the Spurs do have MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard playing next to Duncan, the greatest power forward of all time. As far as national recognition, Diaw settled for 13th place in the Sixth Man Award voting.

But he's more than that. At the very least, the sixth man who grew up playing six sports personifies the depth and versatility that now define this team.

San Antonio won 67 games this year, the most successful season of Popovich's 20-year tenure. Through the regular season Diaw and the Spurs' bench had a net rating of +10.9, best in the league. Halfway through the year, ESPN's analytics website FiveThirtyEight noted that San Antonio's second unit alone was playing at a 64-win pace. That's a pretty significant advantage for a coach who's made his living off shrewd adjustments for the past two decades.

"Pop's the best at that," Duncan said the day after the Spurs beat the Grizzlies in Game 3 of their series. "So many different combinations he can put out there. You could see it last night. He was tweaking and tweaking and tweaking until he found a combination that worked."

In that game, Diaw played 10 fourth-quarter minutes as the Spurs turned a one-point deficit into a 96--87 win.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Diaw's mother is known as the first French woman to shoot a jump shot, but she preached unselfishness to her son. French coaches did the same. But Diaw's altruistic DNA has been less welcome in some places than others. After the Hawks took him 21st in the 2003 draft, his rookie year went fine. He was playing for Terry Stotts, who had finished his playing career in France and understood the European game. Stotts would speak French to him, and Diaw would try to respond in English. It was a happy marriage.

After the season Stotts moved on, Mike Woodson took over and things devolved. Diaw can laugh about this now: "[Woodson] didn't have much, in my opinion, experience with European basketball. There were a lot of DNPs."

This hints at the tension that's defined his career, between old-school NBA principles and a more European philosophy. Take two more examples.

Diaw's career nearly bottomed out at the end of his time with the Charlotte Bobcats. His weight ballooned and he wasn't connecting with a coach who didn't appreciate his passing tendencies. As Paul Silas told The Charlotte Observer when Diaw was finally bought out in '12, "Some of the things that would go on, like not shooting the ball, passing all of the time, that doesn't help us. I needed hoops, and he could put the ball in the hoop. When that wouldn't happen, it was very disturbing."

At one point Silas asked his starting forward, who was in the middle of a five-year, $45 millon contract, whether he'd like to be an All-Star one day, and Diaw said, "Not really."

Asked about that now, Diaw seems incredulous that this is even controversial. "My goal is to win a championship," he says. "I'm not trying to be sixth man of the year. I'm not trying to be most improved. Would you ask somebody, Do you want to be MVP? If that happens because people think I was playing very good that year, great, I'll take it. But is it my goal? To say, Screw my teammates, I'm just going to score points so I can be MVP, or I can be an All-Star? No. We were building [in Charlotte]. We won nine games, and I want to be an All-Star?"

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Technically, those Bobcats won seven games, but the point remains: It ended badly for everyone. The other end of the spectrum was Phoenix.

Diaw was dealt to the Suns in August 2005. After enduring Mike Woodson in Atlanta, his reward was life with Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash and one of the best NBA offenses of all time. What's more, Amar'e Stoudemire was out almost all of '05--06, which meant Diaw was needed on the court.

Diaw had been a wing or a guard all his life, but he was big enough to defend the post and skilled enough to space the floor. It worked. Eventually he'd be nicknamed 3D—he wore number 3, and he could drive, dish and defend—and as those Suns helped usher in a new generation of offense, Diaw quietly helped reinvent the power forward position. In his first postseason he averaged 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists as Phoenix made it to the conference finals.

"That year," he recalls, "every other team was two big guys. All across the NBA it was like that. That changed."

Diaw still credits Nash more than anyone for the way those teams played. "The team is built to the image of the franchise player," he says. "If you've got an asshole franchise player, the team usually doesn't work. If you got guys who are understanding, unselfish, it's always better. Steve Nash was the master of that."

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Come on." Boris is talking about movies now. He is explaining his reluctance to direct his first short film over the February All-Star break. "It's my break! It's my only five days during the year when I'm off. I don't want to go somewhere where I'm not on a break."

Eventually, he relented. He'd been investing in movies for the past few years, and after learning the business he looked at a handful of scripts, then decided to write his own. He finished Easy Life on a road trip to Boston and New York last November. Then he successfully pitched the title role to Cedric the Entertainer, and they shot the short film, a drama about a father and his rebellious son, over All-Star weekend. Somewhere out there, Paul Silas is even more disappointed than he was in Charlotte.

They filmed one day in L.A., and three days in Hawaii. "It felt like vacation, but not really," Diaw says with half-serious mourning. "We got one morning off, and I went to the beach, and that's it. That's the only time I saw the beach." This is the other part of the Boris experience: a life off the court that is as big as his personality in the locker room.

"I think that comes before anything he does on the court," Mills says. "We all get along with him so well. He's able to bring smiles out of everyone and make everyone have a good time."

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Diaw is a reminder that sports are supposed to be fun. Asked what is his favorite part of playing for Popovich, he takes a second: "Ummmmmmm. We don't have that many practices."

Asked for his least favorite part, he can't find the English word to describe Pop's sideline mood swings. He finally settles on oscillating.

Pop gives it back too. During the Memphis series, the 67-year-old charged onto the court to scream at Diaw. Usually it's more lighthearted, though. "Sometimes we're up 30," Diaw says, "and he's like, 'I'm just going to leave you on the court so you can lose some weight.'"

At media day in 2014, after the Spurs had re-signed Diaw to a four-year, $28 million contract, Popovich famously said, "Boris is having piña coladas. We have a pool where you guess his weight. You have to start at 275." Diaw responded by posting an Instagram toasting his coach with red wine, with the caption: "No worries pop only one glass of wine and daily workouts!"

When he's not playing, he's traveling. Diaw, who isn't married, plans to take a boat around the world when he retires. He wants to visit every country. For now, he's planning on the Philippines this summer, in addition to the Rio Olympics, where he'll star for France. "I want to see everything," he says. "I want to go everywhere."

This all pairs well with yet another passion: photography. For the world championships in France two years ago, he worked with the French magazine L'Équipe to preview the national team, and they let him compare the 12-man roster to animals he'd photographed on his safaris. Parker was a tiger, center Joffrey Lauvergne a rhino, the coaches a group of African wild dogs. He compared himself to a hippo, as the caption explained (in French): "Lethargic, even nice, but it is the most dangerous of all. Every year tourists underestimate it, and in getting a little too close, they pay the price."

He took photos of his teammates for the piece, in their hotel rooms, asking them to pose like the animals. "I wanted it to be artistic," he says. "Instead of color, I wanted it to be, not black-and-white, but kind of sepia. Brownish, very dark. I would go in and say, 'Just turn off the lights.' They're like, 'What?'"

Back in San Antonio, Diaw became the "Borista" in January, when he took advantage of newly installed outlets to put an espresso machine in his locker. "Twelve years in the NBA," Diaw explains. "I've always had coffee. But in San Antonio we didn't have a machine. So the four years I'd ask for coffee, they'd bring me coffee from the media room. It was pretty depressing."

Now he makes his own. Teammates Parker and Manu Ginóbili will have a cup every now and then, and forward Kyle Anderson is his best customer. I tell him that whatever it is he ordered for us in Memphis—the Hummingbird—is delicious.

"It's good, eh?" he says. "Lavender. I love it."

Chris Covatta/Getty Images Sport

Diaw's breezy approach to life makes his value on the basketball court even harder to comprehend. As Draymond Green tears through the NBA talking trash, San Antonio's most compelling strategic answer is talking dead seriously about going to outer space.

"It's part of going everywhere," Diaw says. "I say I want to discover everything? I don't want to stop at planet Earth. One civilian paid $20 million and went to space. If it's $20 million now, in 20 years it might be two. They already got SpaceX, they got Richard Branson. Why not? I would sign up."

It fits with how the Spurs have rebuilt this team in Duncan's twilight. They're not looking specifically for future astronauts, no, but they're looking for role players with high IQs and versatility, and that demands diversity. "This is a mature team," general manager R.C. Buford says. "Tim and that group have been together a long time. So broader interests fit our group. But then they're also very focused at the right time."

Diaw says the focus still starts with Duncan, in the same way the Suns started with Nash. "Everybody gets in line," he says. "When Pop is going crazy and starts yelling, and he yells at [Duncan], and he just replies by playing harder, everybody follows. That hasn't changed."

But the roster around Duncan has. Leonard provides much of the same efficiency Duncan did, but an offense that was once built on the most dependable bank shot in NBA history now calls to mind those Suns teams: a blur of ball movement and a bench that goes six deep, with role players from all over the world. A team that used to be known for brutal efficiency is still brutally efficient, but it feels more eccentric now.

• MORE NBA: Spurs realizing Aldridge vision against the Thunder

"It doesn't just end with the players," Mills says. "It's in the front office. It's in the staff. The whole organization is different cultures. You catch yourself sitting after practice just sitting for an hour, two hours, just talking to everyone. Everyone has a different story."

Then there's the Boris story. In San Antonio's lone win over the Warriors this year, he was a crucial answer to small ball. He missed the final two Golden State games with injuries, and he swears this wasn't a Popovich ploy to hide him until the playoffs. Either way, his value goes beyond the Dubs.

He played 35.2 minutes per game in the 2014 Finals, when the Spurs ended the LeBron era in Miami. Before that series Diaw scored 26 points in 36 minutes against the Thunder in the Game 6 clincher of the Western Conference finals. "To have the body that he has and to do what he's done," Duncan said during the '14 Finals, "it's really changed our team."

It really has. The same tension that has defined Diaw's career—between old-school NBA principles and international ideals—applies to much of the modern NBA. One way to understand the Spurs' dominance is that with stars like Leonard and subs like Diaw, they can apply both philosophies at once.

Now Boris and the Spurs have the Thunder again. The Warriors are looming. Then the Finals—or more vacations—and the Olympics. After that, another year in San Antonio with a dynasty that's extended further than anyone thought possible. More winning, more coffee. Speaking of which, as we get up to leave I have one last question: Has Popovich ever tried the locker room espressos?

"No, he's already fired up, he doesn't need the caffeine." Diaw shakes his head. "I'm not giving Pop coffee."

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