“They could do this.”
If you were watching Game 1 of this year’s NBA Western Conference Finals, you probably thought that at one point or another about the San Antonio Spurs. Whether it be a worried Warriors fan, a hopeful Spurs fan, or most likely, a casual fan who just wanted to see the Warriors lose, that thought crossed your mind at one point or another.
The Spurs came into Game 1 as 10 point underdogs, but by the end of the first half, they were up 20. And it was clear — if the San Antonio Spurs played their game, for four whole games, they could win this series. By no means an easy task, but a goal that most thought was unattainable just 24 hours before was now on the radar. The worn-down, world-weary, reluctant hero had a real chance of defeating the young and gun villain.
Kawhi was dominating on both ends, Aldridge looked like the Portland version of himself, and Manu Ginobili was yet again able to turn the clock back a couple of years. Danny Green was hitting threes, and Patty Mills, although shooting poorly, looked far better than the 35-year-old Tony Parker did. . Unless you grew up in the Bay Area or are a front-running child, odds are, this is was good news.
And then, with about six and a half to go in the third and the Spurs up 23 points, this happened:
There's no convincing me Zaza Pachulia wasn't trying to injure Kawhi Leonard. Dirty play. pic.twitter.com/O2vn3SSfKd
— Dan Molloy (@DanMolloyTV) May 14, 2017
I haven’t played basketball with regulated rules since I was about 8, so it’s out of my realm of knowledge to know whether that’s definitively a dirty play by Zaza Pachulia. However, whether or not I can tell if you if it’s dirty or not doesn’t matter, because both the rules and Gregg Popovich will tell you that, dirty or not — it’s certainly illegal.
While speaking to reporters this morning, not 24 hours after losing one of the best 5 players in the league, a usually reserved Pop went on a two-minute tirade about the incident:
Now, Pop makes two points here, the second stronger than first.
His first point is simple: it’s against the rules. And not only is it against the rules, but it’s a rule that’s been emphasized over the last decade or so. As a fan, I can attest to that. 15 years ago when I was watching Jason Kidd run the point for my Nets, players were stepping in opponents ‘landing area’ regularly. Today, you can draw a foul if some nicks you.
But it’s his second point that I find poignant, and yet another other reason why it makes the Warriors such a unlikeable team.
— San Antonio Spurs 🏀 (@SASpursElite) May 15, 2017
Essentially, what I think is happening here, and what Pop is so angry about, is that the Warriors have so much talent that they can afford to pay a player such as Zaza Pachulia to be a hockey-like enforcer.
In just one second, the Spurs were a quarter away from being up 1-0, with both momentum and the mental edge in their favor, to being without their best player in Game 2, and in all likelihood traveling home for Game 3 without a win.
And even if Zaza did have to face the consequences of his actions, it wouldn’t matter, because the battle has already been won. To the Warriors, losing Zaza Pachulia is like biting off a hangnail — but to the Spurs, losing Kawhi Leonard is like getting blinded by acid.
Usually, I wouldn’t assume a player is intentionally trying to injure another, but based on the clip above, it’s difficult to give Pachulia the benefit of the doubt. A player with a dirty past making a seemingly dirty play against an opponent who is in the middle of soning your entire squad certainly seems shady to me. And that’s why Popovich is, yet again, right on the money. It doesn’t matter what the potential intent of the play was — what matters is what happened. And what happened is this: one of the Warriors’ expendable rotation players made an illegal, dangerous play against the Spurs best player and accomplished exactly what he set out to do — injure Kawhi Leonard.
All of this adds up to me thinking that Zaza Pachulia and the Warriors, knowing Kawhi’s ankle was already banged up, were well aware of what they were doing during that play. It isn’t enough for them to have the most talent in the league — no, they have to use bush league tactics to take talent away from the other teams, too.