Who would have thought that Zaza Pachulia would be the Golden State Warriors’ most valuable player?
Golden State was in danger of getting blown out in Game 1 on their home floor, but midway through the third quarter the game turned, quite literally, on Kawhi Leonard’s injured left ankle.
The Spurs led by 21 behind Leonard’s strong performance on both ends when he rose up for a fadeaway jumper in the left corner. Pachulia’s closeout put his left foot in Kawhi’s landing space, he landed on it and re-sprained his ankle, and the rest is history.
There’s room for debate about Pachulia’s intentions on this particular play, but there are only two ways to interpret it:
- He’s a clumsy player who recklessly endangered an opposing star by accident
- He’s a dirty player who recklessly endangered an opposing star on purpose
Many have argued that his momentum carried him into Leonard and he wasn’t even looking at his feet. It’s entirely possible that he didn’t intend to hurt Kawhi when he closed out, but at the very least it was reckless. Things tend to look worse in slow motion, and Pachulia is a large, lumbering, goofy man. However, the full-speed replay shows that he wasn’t out of control and definitely could have stopped before sliding under Leonard’s weak ankle.
Regardless of intent, it’s pretty clear that the contact was unnecessary and dangerous on this play. After the game Kawhi said he didn’t think it was dirty but he had to look at the play. Pachulia claimed that he wasn’t good enough to do it on purpose, and many on the Warriors’ side have claimed that he isn’t a dirty player.
However, there are many well-documented cases of Pachulia crossing the line from physical to just plain dirty. He’s been a bit of a bully throughout his career, and he has a history of taking cheap shots at opponents when frustrated. Most of his more thuggish behavior has come with his team either losing by a lot or in a tight, tense game.
These first few examples are fairly harmless but speak to Pachulia’s mean streak and physicality outside of a basketball context. It’s tough to say that a player isn’t dirty when he has slapped and tried to trip opponents.
Those plays were mostly just disrespectful, but Pachulia has also seriously and intentionally endangered the health of opponents. Let’s take a look at this body check on Russell Westbrook, who was singlehandedly keeping his Thunder in the game when this happened.
He decked a guy seven inches shorter than him, slapped him in the face on the way down, and stood over him menacingly. This was at the very end of the first half with the Warriors up just 4 at Oracle. Golden State wound up winning by 21.
Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich is well aware of Pachulia’s history of dirty plays, and on Monday spoke specifically about the following non-basketball violence aimed at his guys in recent years. Here, Zaza catches Patty Mills in the head with a vicious elbow.
Perhaps the best example of Pachulia’s dirty play came against the Spurs last year. San Antonio was putting on an absolute clinic in Dallas, embarrassing the Mavericks on their home floor when Zaza hooked Kawhi’s arm, put him in an arm bar and ripped him to the floor. This easily could have hyperextended, broken, or dislocated Leonard’s arm.
There is nothing ambiguous about that play or Pachulia’s intent, so let’s not act like all of a sudden he cares about Leonard’s well being. As if that wasn’t enough, he hit David West with the most disrespectful move in basketball and an elbow to the jaw just a few minutes later.
Pachulia has repeatedly made dirty plays and does not seem to care if he hurts someone. He likes to act tough, bully smaller players and get in people’s faces, but, in the words of Jimmy Butler, he’s not about that life. He’s instigated a few scraps in the playoffs before, but only to mean mug, intimidate, and give his team an emotional boost before teammates step in so he doesn’t have to actually fight anyone.
Coach Popovich sounded off in his comments to the media on Monday afternoon. He brought up Pachulia’s history of putting other players at risk, and called the closeout the night before unnatural and inappropriate.
Pop also noted how the injury to Kawhi was absolutely devastating for a team that had played so well up to that point in one of the hardest buildings to earn a road win in professional sports.
“We’re playing very possibly the best team in the league,” Popovich said. “9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors would beat the Spurs. Well, we’ve had a pretty damn good season. We’ve played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we’re getting better, and we’re up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State, and Kawhi goes down like that. And you wanna know if our chances are less? And you wanna know how we feel? That’s how we feel.”
Not a single ESPN expert picked San Antonio to win the Western Conference Finals, but I predicted that the Spurs would punch the Warriors in the mouth, steal one of the first two games at Oracle, and win the series in Game 6 at home. San Antonio was well on their way to taking the first step in that process before the injury.
Golden State did not have an answer for Leonard through the first two and a half quarters, as the Spurs’ MVP candidate carved up the defense for 26 points and spearheaded a stellar team defense that effectively shut down the historically potent attack of the Warriors.
Kawhi looked completely healthy as he launched himself into the air for multiple dunks and picked Golden State apart. His dominant scoring opened up opportunities for teammates, and 54% of the Spurs’ shots before the injury were open. San Antonio’s role players hit the open shots on the road, and they led by 20 at halftime.
Leonard also played spectacular defense. He limited the production of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and he was huge on the boards with eight rebounds to prevent the Warriors’ deadly shooters from getting extra chances.
When Leonard went down and got helped to the locker room, everything changed. The Spurs looked rattled, and the Warriors rattled off 18 straight points. They smelled blood in the water and attacked. Unhindered by Kawhi’s defense, KD scored at will. Steph Curry and KD combined for 74 points, the most for the MVP duo in a game to date. 35 of those points came in the 19 minutes after Kawhi’s injury.
LaMarcus Aldridge was forced to handle the ball more often against more intense pressure, and he turned the ball over five times while missing eight shots. The Spurs shot 37% from the floor and 0/7 from beyond the arc as they could only create open looks on 19% of their shots without Kawhi.
San Antonio’s 21-point lead evaporated with their best player on both ends in the locker room, and they still had every chance to win the game. Manu Ginobili made tough shots, including another geriatric jam in the final minute. LaMarcus got a clean catch-and-shoot look from the corner to tie the game in the closing seconds, but missed.
Coach Popovich also left his best defensive big man, Dewayne Dedmon, on the bench as the Warriors’ juggernaut tore the Spurs apart. Dedmon is a fantastic rim protector and has the ability to switch onto smaller players, which is part of the reason the Dubs could only muster 77.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the regular season.
San Antonio had so many chances to steal Game 1, and Golden State was only able to claw back and win by two at home after injuring the other team’s best player. Pachulia robbed the Spurs of their best chance of winning a game at Oracle with a dangerous play that put Kawhi’s health and availability for the rest of the series into doubt.
Let’s enter a parallel universe in which he did not take that extra step. If the Warriors make it close, Kawhi finishes with around 40 points and 15 rebounds. If not, he heads to the bench with solid numbers and rests the ankle that he already re-twisted on David Lee’s foot. Either way, the Spurs shock the world by winning Game 1 in convincing fashion.
The talking heads rightfully heap praise on Popovich, Leonard, and Aldridge while admitting to overlooking San Antonio. “The Spurs always do this, they won 61 games this year, I can’t believe we slept on them again.” The hot takes fly: “Kevin Durant was afraid of the moment. Is something wrong with Klay Thompson? Does Steph Curry have enough help?”
The Warriors adjust and win Game 2, but the Spurs have already stolen home court advantage. If the home team wins the rest of the games in the series, San Antonio has a chance to close it out in Game 6 at the AT&T Center.
Back to reality. The Spurs lost Game 1 in the most gut-wrenching way possible, and have likely lost their best player for at least the next game. They didn’t need him to win Game 6 in Houston by 39, but nobody honestly believes they can do that against what is quite possibly the best collection of basketball talent ever assembled.
The outlook on this series for the Spurs was bleak to begin with, and they were proving everyone wrong before the injury that changed the trajectory of the entire series. They have no realistic chance to win four out of six games against this Warriors team without Leonard.
Popovich said that Leonard will probably miss Game 2, and he is unlikely to rush the future of the franchise back if he isn’t close to 100%. He chose not to play a battered Tim Duncan in the playoffs against Phoenix early in his career, prioritizing his superstar’s long term health. Pop mentioned that on Monday, and said that’s why Kawhi didn’t play at the end of the Houston series.
So where does this leave the Spurs? Well, angry for one. Pop seemed about as mad as he gets about Pachulia’s play and ensuing results. The rest of the guys in that locker room are probably just as pissed.
The series is poised to get more physical and a bit nastier. Pop’s guys (hopefully) won’t be running under the ankles of KD and Steph, but they’ll be a bit more rough with the Warriors’ stars. They’ll set crushing screens and take hard playoff fouls. They’ll probably do everything they can within the rules of the game to intimidate and physically wear down their opponents.
Popovich might find more minutes for Dedmon and dare Pachulia to try something against the biggest, scariest, most physical player on the roster. Dedmon has already shown in these playoffs that he’s not afraid to mix it up if someone on the other team steps out of line. Things could boil over if Pachulia is involved in another hard foul, or if the Warriors feel the Spurs cross a line retaliating for what happened to Kawhi.
For basketball fans, it’s disappointing that a conference finals between two all-time great teams has devolved into this. For Spurs fans with renewed hope after the dominant first half of Game 1 with Kawhi, it’s devastating and infuriating.
You can bet the Spurs are angry too, and they might be able to channel that into physical aggression on defense and in the paint. If they do that and get their MVP back on the floor, they might still have a shot at winning this series.