Gregg Popovich blasted Zaza Pachulia on Monday, blaming the Golden State center for Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday.
Pachulia closed out on Leonard to contest a jump-shot in the third quarter, and Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot, rolling his ankle in the process. The Spurs lost Game 1, 113-111, and Leonard is likely out for Game 2 on Tuesday.
Was Pachulia’s play dirty?
“It’s a dirty play because you got to give a guy space, but I think it’s tough to judge whether someone is intending to harm somebody, and I don’t think that is the case,” The Vertical’s Michael Lee said on CBS Sports Radio’s Reiter Than You. “I don’t think he said, ‘Okay, there’s Kawhi shooting a jumper. Let me slide under him so I can make sure he sprains an ankle.’ That was not what he was trying to do. He is a bit of a reckless player, but I don’t think he’s malicious. I think that’s the difference. Some guys, they’re going to flail, they’re going to kick around, they’re going to knock people over, and guys are going to wind up hurt just because of the way they go about playing basketball – and he is one of those guys.”
Pachulia, it is worth noting, was responsible – sort of – for Kevin Durant spraining his knee in February, as he fell backwards into Durant’s left leg.
Durant missed 19 games.
“I’m pretty sure he’s not trying to hurt his own teammate in that situation when he’s trying to chase a championship,” Lee said. “He’s just one of those guys that makes mistakes. I don’t consider him a dirty player per se. I know Gregg Popovich made an impassioned argument about him about that being the case. But I think more than anything, he’s upset that Kawhi is not around. But I don’t necessarily think that Zaza is a dirty player.”
Still, there’s no denying that play affected the outcome of the game. San Antonio led by 23 points in the third quarter but was outscored 71-49 in the second half.
“I still think the Spurs would have lost that series, but they definitely would have won that game,” Lee said. “I think the Warrior kind of needed to get a smack in the face. They kind of needed to get a wake-up. It’s been too easy for them. They haven’t really been challenged in the first two rounds, and the Spurs just aren’t that team. They just aren’t going to show up and get rolled by anybody. You saw that in the previous series. They didn’t have Kawhi and they still go in and destroy Houston.
“So this team has a lot of pride,” Lee continued. “They got a coach in Popovich who’s in the discussion as one of the best to ever do it. It was not going to be an easy series. But I think that after that initial wake-up, they were going to get it together and probably finish them off in six. But I think that that game for sure – and the tenor of this entire series – changed once Kawhi Leonard had to leave.”