All it took was for one play by Zaza Pachulia to change the outcome Game 1 of the Golden State Warriors’ showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. Zaza Pachulia not giving Kawhi Leonard any space to land after shooting a fadeaway jump shot led people to believe it was a dirty play by Zaza Pachulia. It also may have made the results of the Western Conference Finals a foregone conclusion. And if so, it may have robbed NBA fans of a compelling playoff series.
Just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, Kawhi Leonard went down after landing (courtesy of ESPN) on Zaza Pachulia’s foot and reaggravated his ankle injury. It was the second time during the game that the Spurs star had landed on his ankle. The first time was when he fell on a Spurs teammate.
Without Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Golden State Warriors were able to overcome a 23-point deficit to win 113-111. Zaza Pachulia’s questionable play to close in on Leonard’s shot, by sliding his feet underneath, changed the complexity of the game. It may have also changed the series.
Kawhi Leonard’s initial injury took place in Game 5 in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Shortly before Game 6 against the Houston Rockets, the Spurs ruled Leonard out in an effort to keep him ready for a potential Game 7 or Game 1. The healthy Spurs’ players did what they were supposed to do in defeating the Rockets, thus setting up for the Warriors matchup.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 15, 2017
The injury to Kawhi Leonard may have the Spurs versus Warriors series already over. Instead of the narrative being about the Warriors’ comeback, it is about whether Zaza Pachulia’s play was a dirty one.
Case in point, ESPN’s First Take led off Monday’s show with the question asking if the Warriors Pachulia is a dirty NBA player? Fox Sports 1’s Undisputed opened the show with a similar inquiry.
People are on the fence about Zaza Pachulia and his play, which could have immediately altered the series to favor the Golden State Warriors. Kawhi Leonard was asked to offer his opinion on Pachulia, but his response was an unexpected one.
According to a tweet from Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News, Leonard did not see Zaza Pachulia’s play as a dirty one.
Kawhi Leonard postgame on the ankle injury, the Pachulia play and more, says he doesn't think it was intentional pic.twitter.com/iOTsGaG3Mb
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 15, 2017
There is a growing sentiment that Zaza Pachulia has become a dirty player over the years. Before joining the Golden State Warriors, there were whispers about Pachulia being a rugged post player, someone who when they fouled you made sure that the foul counted.
Game 1 of the Spurs versus Warriors series was not the first time that Zaza Pachulia went after Kawhi Leonard. According to SB Nation, Pachulia, then with the Dallas Mavericks, spent a considerable amount of time going for Leonard’s shoulder during a game.
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) May 14, 2017
It was difficult to decipher Zaza Pachulia’s intent then, and it is difficult to determine it now. The problem is the optics. The play looks like a dirty play that was barely within the rules. Pachulia appears to take the time to decide where to slide his foot, depending on how one views it.
According to one view, that of Fox Sports’ Skip Bayless, it was a dirty play by the Warriors center.
“We’ve seen this play happen before in professional basketball. And as Jeff Van Gundy said on the telecast, at least they should call a flagrant foul on the play, but it’s sort of accepted as an unwritten rule that you can get away with this play.
“In the end, Zaza Pachulia — I can’t believe I’m even saying his name live on national television — intentionally stuck his Size 17 foot under the gimpy ankle of Kawhi Leonard, the best two-way player in basketball. That got proven yesterday, once again.”
Skip Bayless spoke for a lot of San Antonio Spurs fans who wanted a fair shot against the Golden State Warriors. Warriors center Zaza Pachulia may have cost the Spurs that opportunity when he slid his foot underneath the landing feet of Kawhi Leonard.
The complexity of what most considered a compelling Western Conference Finals changed with one play. Now as everyone collects their thoughts, there is one question they keep asking: Is the Golden State Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?
[Featured Image by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]