San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich ripped Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia on Monday for a controversial foul that injured Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
During the third quarter, Pachulia closed out on a Leonard shot attempt and appeared to put his foot under Leonard after the shot.
Leonard, whose injured ankle kept him out of Game 6 and part of Game 5 of the Spurs’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets, landed on Pachulia’s foot and had to leave the game. The Warriors went on an 18-0 run, erasing most of a 23-point Spurs lead. The Warriors won the game 113-111, outscoring the Spurs by 25 points without Leonard for most of the second half.
While it was unclear whether Pachulia’s foot placement was intentional, Popovich said it was “a totally unnatural close-out” and listed past incidents he considers dirty plays by Pachulia:
“A two-step, lead-with-your-foot close-out is not appropriate. It’s dangerous. It’s unsportsmanlike. It’s just not what anybody does to anybody else.
“And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action. You can go back and look at Dallas games where he got a flagrant two for elbowing Patty Mills. The play where he took Kawhi down and locked his arm in Dallas and could have broken his arm. Ask David West, his current teammate, how things went when Zaza was playing for Dallas and he and David got into it.
“And then think about the history he’s had and what that means to a team, what happened last night: a totally unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago and pays great attention to it.”
Popovich then angrily broke down how Leonard’s injury could affect the Spurs’ title chances:
“You wanna know if that lessens our chances or not? We’re playing very possibly the best team in the league. We don’t know what’s gonna happen in the East. And 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. 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.”
At the time of Popovich’s media availability, Leonard was getting an MRI. Popovich said the Spurs expected Leonard to miss Game 2.
As many people pointed out, Pachulia’s so-called foot trick has been around the NBA for years. Former Spurs wing Bruce Bowen was perhaps the player most known to slide his foot under jump shooters, risking potential injury. The Spurs retired Bowen’s number, leading some to say Popovich’s rant was hypocritical.
After Game 1, Leonard said he didn’t think Pachulia was trying to intentionally hurt him. Pachulia also defended himself, saying big men often get called for many unintentional fouls.
Popovich, however, brushed that aside.
“I don’t give a damn about intent,” he said. “You still go to jail for manslaughter.”
Here’s the play:
Popovich likely was trying to draw the league’s attention to other fouls the Warriors may have committed during the game, perhaps even trying to get it to punish Pachulia. But it’s unlikely the NBA will retroactively punish Pachulia for the foul, particularly if the intent was unclear.
But as SB Nation’s Tom Ziller said, one person playing dirty does not mean others should follow suit. For now, the Spurs trail 1-0 in the series, and if Leonard misses any time, the Spurs could be in big trouble.
Watch Popovich’s comments:
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) May15, 2017