PHOENIX – Boris Diaw has heard it all from the local hang up-and-listen psychologists. French Pastry. Doris Meow. Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, once lamenting Diaw's expanding waistline, questioned how many croissants his French forward had eaten over the summer.
The criticism has never seemed to hang on Diaw for long. For better or worse, he shrugs his shoulders, nods his head and smiles. He doesn't have an Alpha Dog personality and he never will, and while that burns more than a few Suns fans, it can also lead to moments like Sunday.
Then, the one Sun who often looks like he'd rather be lying on a beach postponed his vacation for at least a couple days. Totaling 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while corralling Tony Parker on the other end of the floor, Diaw extended the Suns' season with a 105-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their Western Conference playoff series.
"He was phenomenal," D'Antoni said.
Give D'Antoni credit for this victory, too. He's weathered considerable heat after the Suns fell into their 0-3 hole against the Spurs, much of it justified. But after watching Grant Hill limp along for three games, the Suns coach made his most important adjustment yet: He told Hill he wasn't going to play and started Diaw in his place. Now D'Antoni wishes he made the move two games sooner.
"I was kind of snookered a little bit," D'Antoni said, "because I thought we won the first game, so why change?"
The Suns also, Steve Nash said, "adjusted their effort." They played desperate and aggressive, and if they had played that way Friday, this series might be even. Now they have to fly to San Antonio for another elimination game Tuesday.
"We're still in a deep hole and we understand that," Raja Bell said. "But we still have life."
Bell helped make sure of that. He scored Phoenix's first seven points and set the tone with his aggressiveness. The Suns did a better job of fighting through the Spurs' screens and when Parker and Manu Ginobili started to penetrate, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal stepped up to meet them. Always, it seemed, the lane looked too crowded for the Spurs guards, evidenced by the nine turnovers they totaled.
The difference? Diaw. Needing someone to fence in Parker after he torched the Suns for 41 points Friday, D'Antoni called on the guy who knew him the most: His best man. Diaw stood next to Parker at his wedding in July and shadowed him Sunday. The two grew up together in France's national program, long enough for Diaw to learn a few things about his best friend. Whereas the Suns often sagged off Parker in Game 3, Diaw used his 6-foot-8 frame to rarely give him separation. The first shot Parker put up, Diaw threw back.
"I kind of know sometimes when he wants to go to his floater, when he tries to go for his jump shot," Diaw said, "or when he is looking to pass."
Parker missed 10 of his 17 shots and finished with 18 points but didn't give his friend too much credit, insisting he merely missed shots he usually makes. "That's coaches," Parker said. "They always think (length) is going to bother me."
There's a reason for that: It does. Parker has struggled at times against longer defenders, including one the Suns used to throw on him: Shawn Marion. He eventually finds a way to counter, and he might this time, too, maybe even as soon as Tuesday. If the Spurs had to lose, this way was probably the best way for them. Gregg Popovich was able to rest Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan while giving Robert Horry and Brent Barry a chance to regain some of their rhythm.
D'Antoni instead chose to play Diaw a season-high 45 minutes. "I trust him," D'Antoni said, "and I always have."
Sometimes too much. After Diaw averaged 13.3 points, 6.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds while filling in for Stoudemire during his first season in Phoenix, the Suns rewarded him with a $45 million contract. Diaw took his fat contract and got fat, soon becoming Example No. 1 why Phoenix was too soft. When the going got tough, didn't the Suns only get their passports?
Diaw has always seemed to lack an inner fire, and that burned his coach in Atlanta. Mike Woodson was so ready to be rid of Diaw, he would have likely driven him to Phoenix after the Suns asked for him in the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade. Though the Spurs had once hoped to draft Diaw – after Atlanta took him, they traded their pick to Phoenix, which used it on Leandro Barbosa – when the Hawks made him available two seasons later, they, too, were scared off by Diaw's competitiveness issue.
D'Antoni, however, saw only Diaw's versatility. He initially viewed him as a possible backup to Nash then played him at center when Stoudemire went down with his knee injury. Now he thinks Diaw may be best suited for small forward. Sunday was the first time D'Antoni started his Diaw-Stoudemire-Shaq frontline, but it won't be the last. Hill didn't play a minute and yet, because of his abdominal injury, he still had trouble standing up straight as he left the locker room.
With Bruce Bowen chasing Nash, the Suns were able to post up Diaw on smaller defenders and use his playmaking abilities. Diaw also had similar advantages in the first two games, including an opportunity to win Game 1 at the end of the first overtime, but couldn't capitalize. At times, he's been too unselfish, too willing to pass. The Suns, though, don't always consider that a negative.
"Boris is going to play the way Boris is going to play," Phoenix assistant coach Alvin Gentry said. "No one says anything when he throws it out to Raja and he's got a wide-open three."
Diaw's biggest impact on last year's series with the Spurs also came in Game 4. Then he and Stoudemire walked off the bench and into a suspension after Horry hip-checked Nash. On Sunday only D'Antoni left early.
With 3:38 left and Phoenix up by 22, official Scott Foster gave the Suns coach a technical for suggesting the refs were trying to even up the foul count. D'Antoni then jokingly told fellow ref David Jones not to also start in on him because he was going to fill out Jones' evaluation form after the game. Jones ejected him.
"I don't know where the sense of humor has gone," D'Antoni said.
Two minutes later Diaw exited to his own standing ovation. He nodded his head and smiled. In two days, for better or worse, the Suns will lean on him again.