In one of the biggest upsets in recent international basketball history, France knocked off Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. A week after getting blown out by the Spaniards in group play, the French turned the tables in the knockout round. France got standout performances from a number of players, most notably Boris Diaw, who outplayed the Gasol brothers on both sides of the ball, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists.
With national team mainstays Joakim Noah and Tony Parker sitting this tournament out, the French team became Diaw’s, almost by default. Diaw had not put up big scoring numbers before the game against of Spain, but he still impacted the game in a number of ways, serving as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.
Spain came into the quarterfinals on a tear, blowing out every team they faced en route to a 6-0 record. After losing to the US in the gold medal games in the last two Olympics, this was supposed to be their year. Not only were they hosting the World Cup, there wasn’t a team in the field with the size to match up with the Gasol brothers. It was pick your poison - either you lived up with Marc and Pau dominating in the post or you gave up open 3’s.
Against France, though, the tables were turned. The French big men, despite giving up a ton of size, played the Gasols and Serge Ibaka very physically, not giving up any space in the post, crowding them on the perimeter and attacking them on the glass. The mismatch ended up working the other way - Diaw was able to drag the Spanish big men away from the paint, where he used his superior quickness to blow by them and collapse the defense.
Diaw’s fingerprints were all over the win. At 6’8 250 and with a wingspan north of 7’0, he is built more like an NFL LT than an NBA big man. He no longer has the great vertical leap of his youth, but he still has a very strong base and remarkably quick feet, which allows him to body up and stay in front of much bigger players while still contesting their shots. Matched up primarily against Marc Gasol, Diaw held him to three points and four rebounds on 1-7 shooting.
That was one of the biggest problems for Spain on Wednesday - while Marc could not take advantage of Diaw on one side of the ball, he had very little chance of guarding him on the other. France opened the game on an 11-2 run, thanks in large part to two three-pointers from Diaw. Once he established that he could make the perimeter shot, he put the Spanish defense in a difficult bind, since none of their big men could contain him off the dribble either.
For the most part, the other team comes into a game wanting Diaw to be a scorer. He is a naturally unselfish player who is at his best when he can distribute the ball and make plays for everyone else. You can count the number of players with his size, ball-handling and passing ability on one hand. In terms of being a point forward who can dissect a defense from anywhere on the floor, the only guys in the same league as Diaw are LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
Diaw has a remarkable feel for the game, with an intuitive sense of where the other nine players on the floor are. He doesn’t just find the open man - he creates open shots by anticipating what the defense will do before he even makes his move. My favorite play in the World Cup came in their Round of 16 win over Croatia, when Diaw caught the ball in the post, split a double team in one motion, drew a third defender and then handed the ball off for an open dunk.
Even when he didn’t finish off a possession with a basket or an assist, Diaw was one of the main initiators of the French offense on Wednesday. When he was on the floor, Diaw was either the primary ball-handler or a screener on the pick-and-roll. Something good happened almost every time he touched the ball - he would hit cutters and find the open man out of the post or drive the ball into the defense and create ball movement that would end in an open shot.
Diaw has never been the most consistent player over the course of an 82-game season, but when the lights are brightest, he performs at his best. He gave Spain the complete package in the quarterfinals, beating them as a scorer, passer, shooter, rebounder and defender. Diaw is a 250-pound Swiss Army Knife who can do a little bit of everything over the course of a game, which gives his team a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball.
There’s no position where versatility is more important than power forward, where players have to match-up with a wide variety of opponents. Some teams like to pound the ball inside to two traditional big men while others like to spread the floor with four perimeter players - Diaw lets you do either. He can defend the post and the three-point line and he can play out of the post or on the perimeter on offense. There are not many PF’s who can do all four.
You are not going to find two basketball players more distinct than Marc Gasol and LeBron James and Diaw was able to hold his own against both at the highest levels of the game. Diaw’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 3 of the NBA Finals changed the tenor of the series. With Diaw spreading the floor and playing as a point forward from the top of the key, the San Antonio Spurs blew the Miami Heat off the floor for three straight games.
Diaw was one of the main catalysts for one of the most dominant performances in Finals history. His stat-line for the series was vintage Diaw - six points, eight rebounds and six assists per game - but the most telling number was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1:1. Diaw thinks the game at a really high level and he almost never makes the wrong play with the ball in his hands. He is the ultimate teammate who makes the game easy for everyone around him.
If Diaw had a different mentality, both in terms of hunting for his own shot and keeping himself in peak physical condition, there’s no telling how good a player he could have been. Diaw is the rare basketball player who never had to sacrifice his taste for the finer things in life to excel at the highest levels of the sport. For all he has accomplished, he is still only 31 years old, so basketball fans should be able to enjoy his unique game for many years to come.