Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia is in the midst of a controversy regarding his role in Kawhi Leonard’s injury Sunday. On Monday, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich ripped Pachulia and called him a dirty player throughout his career.
Leonard re-aggravated his previously injured ankle in the third quarter of Game One on Sunday, when Pachulia contested his jump shot in front of San Antonio’s bench. Pachulia has taken criticism for not giving Leonard space to land when he came down.
Both sides of the argument are valid and after reviewing this play several times, here is my take on the play:
First of all, you will get no argument here, a shooter deserves a chance to land. But, many players in the NBA face this all the time. And, in a playoff series, someone like Zaza will play hard and close out the shooter. As an example, Steph Curry has made the same type of jump shots time and time again and is often celebrating awesome shots from the floor. As a point guard, Curry has suffered through a myriad of sprained ankles and knee injuries due to the same issues. Whatever the rule is, it must be called across the board. The refs need to call all or none.
That being said, I feel for the injured player. I feel for Kawhi Leonard. Even though the Warriors have their share of naysayers and in the realm of Dubs fandom — a winning team wants to face a healthy, complete team.
Frankly, I believe ZaZa when he said:
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Pop and their organization, and I mean it.” Later Pachulia said, “I’m not a dirty player. I love this game and I play hard. I feel bad that it happened.”
Popovich called the play “unsportsmanlike.” When asked about closing out on a shooter, Pachulia said,
“It depends on who you’re guarding, a shooter or non-shooter, their strengths and weaknesses….Kawhi is an amazing shooter. KD got caught on a screen, so I had to help my teammate. It doesn’t bother me (what Popovich said). I did what I had to do. I had to challenge the shot. I wish he had not landed on my foot.”
If you have watched Zaza, you know his play. To put it bluntly, Pachulia is a gigantic man who is very clumsy. He is a slow, 6-11 foot, 275 pound man. Pachulia fell backwards on Kevin Durant’s left leg not too long ago and almost took out his teammate for the rest of the season.
Paculia’s clumsiness could have shattered Golden State’s hopes of reclaiming an NBA championship it won in 2015. Surely, that was not on purpose.
Bottom line is, in the playoffs, guys are going to play hard — especially if they are down. Kawhi Leonard said himself he did not believe the play was dirty. While the frustration is understood, there are two ways to look at it: the basketball way and the fans way. Unfortunately, injuries happen in all sports and if the NBA wants to prevent these types of shots, they should be an automatic Flagrant Two.
Nonetheless, Leonard has my best wishes for a speedy recovery. I hope to see him competing in Game Three.