Kawhi Leonard's Injury Is a Shame, but Was Zaza Pachulia's Play Really Dirty?

Erik MalinowskiGolden State Warriors Lead WriterMay 15, 2017

May 14, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts after an injury during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Spurs 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. — The day after the foot slide heard ‘round the basketball world, the Golden State Warriors practice facility was awash in smiles and laughs.

Most of those emanated from the general direction of head coach Steve Kerr, who circled the hardwood to make the rounds with players and coaches alike. Coming off a comeback win from down 25 points to the San Antonio Spurs, the Dubs were bound to be in good spirits.

But the media crush on this day didn’t materialize to revisit how Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant combined for 74 points in the 113-111 squeaker. The topic du jour was Zaza Pachulia and his third-quarter foot slide that knocked an already gimpy Kawhi Leonard from the afternoon’s proceedings—as well as likely Game 2 on Tuesday, the Spurs announced, and perhaps even longer than that.

“I really feel bad for the guy,” Pachulia said after Monday’s practice. “I wish it didn't happen and it had a different result, but it's a game, and there are some things that you can't control. I have a lot of respect for Kawhi. I think he's one of the best players in this league. We wish him all the best to get healthy.

“But again, meanwhile, we're going to move on.”

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was far more emotional in his response than the hushed Pachulia. “This is crap,” he said Monday. “Because [Pachulia’s] got this history, it can't just be, Oh, it was inadvertent. He didn't have intent. Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you're texting and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that.

“All I care about is what I saw. All I care about is what happened, and the history there exacerbates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry.”

Mike Brown, filling in for Kerr as acting head coach, was far more muted in response to his old coach’s comments. His bottom line? “Pop has his opinion,” Brown said. “We just move forward.”

That’s a smart strategy. It behooves the Warriors to keep from dousing this raging narrative inferno with any more flammables, but this kind of incident does have the potential to cause even more ripple effects in its aftermath than what we saw at Oracle Arena on Sunday afternoon in Game 1.

Let’s be real: Golden State was the decisive favorite coming into this series. Leonard being out for any amount of time only increases the Dubs’ ultimate win probability, so you can’t say what happened with Pachulia’s defense on Leonard definitively changes the original outlook. Popovich conceded as much on Monday when he said that, coming into the conference finals, “9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors will beat the Spurs.”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 14: Zaza Pachulia #27 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors high five each other during the game against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2017 at ORA
Noah Graham/Getty Images

But as we saw last June with Draymond Green and his infamous Game 4 backslap of LeBron James’ undercarriage, these things have a way of gaining their own kind of life. Popovich said he hadn’t contacted chief NBA disciplinarian Kiki VanDeWeghe, but the league office has shown a willingness to step in on occasion.

Green, for example, wouldn’t take any bait from the surrounding media on Monday, speaking to reporters for all of 90 seconds before getting up to leave. He’s in no hurry to see history repeat itself, and stoking the league’s ire with additional comments does neither he nor Pachulia any good.

Pachulia was indeed called for a foul on the play. Leonard, who had turned his ankle landing on the sidelined David Lee just about two minutes of game time before the Pachulia play, was already in a fairly diminished state.

Pachulia said on Sunday that he had no intent to injure. He reiterated that stance Monday.

For all of the slow-motion video detectives that hope to find some evidence to the contrary, here’s the thing: When you Zapruder any piece of video long enough, you’re bound to find something you believe you’re looking for. Even Leonard himself said he didn’t think the play was dirty.

Yes, Pachulia has a reputation as a physical player who isn’t afraid to initiate contact, but his past actions don’t bolster the level of nefariousness that some people are ascribing to his perceived motives here.

There's also the reality that Golden State's guys aren't the only ones who have made these types of plays. In Game 1, LaMarcus Aldridge closed out on Curry in a similar fashion. Mike Brown noticed but made it clear it was just the flow of the game, stating "It's the same play. Zaza's not a dirty player. LaMarcus is not a dirty player."

You can also watch Pau Gasol take an extra step in as Curry knocks down his third three of the third quarter. Just because it doesn't result in an injury doesn't mean it didn't happen:

When it comes to judging plays like this as dirty, you can debate intent until you're blue in the face. But demonizing one player or team above others for stuff like this is, at best, disingenuous. 

Besides, this is the kind of play that unfortunately happens when teams stress closing out on shooters. Don't think elite squads coach with this in mind? Just read this week's cover story in Sports Illustrated, about how the Warriors lead the NBA in all kinds of hustle stats. That's one vital element of a stifling defense, and that tenacity also manifests in other ways, such as not giving an inch.

Look at what Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams told the magazine: "Your idea of a challenged shot may not be the same as my idea. If somebody closes out with his hand up, staying on the ground, is that a challenged shot? To me, it's a half-assed challenged shot."

If you find the concept of closing out on shooters problematic, then your larger problem is with today's NBA. After all, Giannis Antetokounmpo showed us during Round 1 that this isn't an issue exclusive to the Warriors, Spurs, Zaza or any other individual entity: 

At least for Golden State, this controversy falls on someone who isn’t part of the inner core—in other words, the opposite of what happened last June with Green. Pachulia has been a model citizen for the Warriors this season, full of good humor and wit off the court and eating vital minutes at the center position while on the floor. But there's no denying that they can replace his presence (if he were, say, to be suspended for one game) easier than they could with Green.

As ESPN.com's Marc Stein reports, the league will likely stand pat on this one, and hopefully all sides can move forward to Game 2 and for however long this series lasts.

One thing everyone can agree on: It’s a shame these two teams won’t match up at full strength for the duration of this series, even though the basketball gods have teased us with this showdown for the past two years.

But that’s the inherent risk of today’s NBA: When you get this deep into the playoffs, outcomes often hinge on attrition and health—and who has the advantage not between the lines but in the head trainer’s room.

The Warriors have experienced both sides of that reality over the past couple of playoff runs. Now the Spurs are, too.

It happens. You keep playing and, as Brown said, move forward, however you possibly can.

  

Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His bookBetaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.