Diaw back in Phoenix with ‘loading up’ Spurs

PHOENIX — Boris Diaw will take the floor at the U.S. Airways Center tonight, and at times it will feel like a homecoming.

Diaw spent the most productive seasons of his career here from 2005 until being traded to Charlotte in December 2008. He still owns a house in the area.

And like most other prominent members of the Phoenix Suns from that era, Diaw also occasionally experiences flashbacks of fruitless playoff trips against the Spurs.

“They were the team to beat, and we never could get past them,” said Diaw, a 6-foot-8 forward acquired by the Spurs last week. “That was a long time ago. It’s in the past.”

Much has changed since Diaw left Phoenix.

For starters, he is on the other side of the Spurs-Suns divide, his “we” and “them” having been transposed when he signed a free-agent deal in San Antonio last week.

When Diaw returns to his former home court tonight, to face his former team, he will literally be wearing black, a symbol of his changed place in the rivalry. As far as Phoenix fans are concerned, he might as well embrace the change fully and don a Darth Vader mask.

“It feels different,” Diaw said of switching allegiances. “But it’s the same goal of going as far as possible.”

Diaw’s arrival marks the latest step in a midseason makeover unprecedented in San Antonio, designed to turbo-charge the Spurs’ pursuit of a fifth NBA championship before franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan retires.

In a span of eight days, the Spurs potentially added three new rotation players to a roster already good enough to post the second-best record in the Western Conference.

First, the front office swapped Richard Jefferson — the Spurs’ starter at small forward for 192 games — to Golden State for Stephen Jackson, a clutch-shooting ghost from the team’s championship past.

Then, the Spurs signed Diaw, two days after his contract was bought out in Charlotte.

The team has one more move still in the hopper, awaiting backup point guard Patty Mills to resolve visa issues so he can begin spelling Tony Parker.

For Spurs players who have been here a while, and have never witnessed a shake-up quite so bold, the point was undeniable.

“We knew we were going all-in,” guard Manu Ginobili said.

The flurry of roster moves sent a clear signal to the Spurs’ top competitors as well.

“They are loading up for a run,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “They are like a lot of us. They see this thing is pretty wide-open, and they have a great shot.”

In the 33-year-old Jackson, the Spurs have a battle-tested swingman who arrived touting his ability to “make love to pressure.”

Rescued from Milwaukee, where he clashed with coach Scott Skiles, Jackson brings an edge and sense of swagger to the Spurs’ bench.

A skilled and versatile forward, Diaw affords the Spurs another ample posterior to set screens and defend the paint against the West’s top big men.

For the remade Spurs, the biggest challenge going forward will be finding time to get the new pieces accustomed to playing with the old ones. The compact lockout schedule leaves little time to practice, and the playoffs are a little more than a month away.

“You just hope the guys can absorb as much as they can,” coach Gregg Popovich said.

For Diaw, simply slipping into a silver and black jersey seems surreal.

The Spurs knocked him from the playoffs three times when he was with Phoenix. By the time Phoenix finally broke through, sweeping the Spurs in the 2010 second round, Diaw was already in Charlotte.

The Suns’ closest call during Diaw’s tenure came in 2007. Phoenix had evened the conference semifinals at 2-2 with a Game 4 victory in San Antonio, only to have Diaw and Amare Stoudemire suspended for Game 5 for leaving the bench area after the Spurs’ Robert Horry bounced Steve Nash into the scorers table.

The Spurs won Game 5, and ultimately the series, en route to their fourth NBA title.

“We were in good position,” Diaw said. “We know how close we were. It was heartbreaking.”

Having been unable to beat the Spurs while with the Suns, Diaw is content enough to join them.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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