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Boris Diaw: The human mismatch

Boris Diaw has been a key performer for the Spurs in this year's playoffs by creating mismatches with a combination of size and skill. In the finals, he will create problems for Heat defenders that will create scoring opportunities for the Spurs..

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

In a Western Conference finals series that included three future Hall-of-Famers on the Spurs' side and three of the NBA's greatest athletes on the other, it's nothing short of remarkable that the player causing the biggest mismatches on the floor was Boris Diaw.

You can call him the 'Land Walrus', and refer to his patented post moves as the 'Cream Shake', but Boris Diaw should also be acknowledged as the Spurs' best mismatch-maker in every playoff series that the Spurs have played so far in 2014, and possibly into the NBA Finals.

Of course it goes without saying that the Spurs and Thunder had other players who demanded notice on defense; Durant and Westbrook always have the attention of all five defenders, while the Spurs have been able to rely on the Big Three to keep defenses occupied.

But that is where the beauty of Diaw - and the way Popovich has used him - comes into play.

He hasn't been just a Swiss Army knife or a wild card, through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Diaw has been elemental. Bruce Lee might call him water; Samuel L. Jackson would call him ice (before being eaten by a shark). Either way, the French big man has filled in exactly where needed, even taking a turn being the team's key playmaker down the stretch when Parker was sidelined with an ankle injury.

Diaw was excellent against the Thunder - especially in the final three games of the series - stretching the floor with his three-point shooting, crashing the offensive glass, using his deceptive quickness to get to the basket, blocking Durant on a dunk, and attacking his defender relentlessly - even if that defender was the previously-infallible Serge Ibaka.

When Ibaka made his WWE-like return to help OKC tie the series, the media was quick to embrace the new narrative: that he was the game-changing big man that would swing this series in favor of the Thunder. But after two impressive showings from the OKC big man, the Spurs made a few tactical adjustments and Diaw proved himself to be the series' true difference-maker.

While Pop's gambit began with his Game 5 and 6 starting of Matt Bonner, it was Boris that played the heavier minutes, especially down the stretch. Diaw outscored Ibaka, the Thunder's third leading scorer, 39-22 in the final two games. And when he wasn't drawing the shot-blocker away from the paint with his shooting, he was driving directly at him and attacking the hoop with a multitude of feints and fakes.

There are plenty of questions heading into Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday, but Diaw's role against a new yet painfully-familiar will be key. Last year, his role was more LeBron-stopper than offensive initiator. This season, his role has expanded, with a usage rate close to a career high, and we should expect to see the offense work through him when Tony and Tim are off the floor. Additionally, given Bonner's shooting struggles this postseason - and Tiago Splitter's ineffectiveness against Miami last year - will Pop start Boris in the NBA Finals?

Equally interesting will be seeing how Miami responds to Diaw's presence. In the Indiana series, the Heat famously contained Lance Stephenson by turning to the almost-forgotten Norris Cole. Will they try to reanimate Shane Battier? Will Spoelstra see how well Chris Andersen can close out on Diaw on the perimeter?

If they don't turn to Battier but still wish to go small, Diaw can tire LeBron on the post. After watching his play down the stretch of the previous series, one particular possession convinces me that Diaw is happy to take on any Heat player, including the de facto 'king' of the sport.

Early in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Diaw called for the ball on the block against Kevin Durant (not a defensive specialist by any means, but much improved from earlier in his career). As he backed down his taller, lengthier defender, the ball bounced off his foot and out of bounds, resulting in a turnover. As OKC brought the ball up the court on the following possession, Diaw was visibly upset with himself, letting out a frustrated yell before quickly collecting himself again. He knew he had Durant, and it was clear the league MVP wanted nothing to do with guarding Diaw.

When your team's soft-spoken third big is playing with that kind of confidence, you know you have something special.