As Kawhi Leonard’s status for Game 2 hangs in doubt, the debate rages on about the play that knocked him from game 1, changing the outcome of Sunday’s game 1 and changing the narrative of the Western Conference Final.
Regarding the play by Zaza Pachulia I’ve been surprised at how 50-50 this debate has been. The general opinion by hardcore basketball people is that all players are aware that the most vulnerable position occurs when a shooter is in the air. The players are keenly aware of staying out of the landing zone of a jump shooter. Certainly accidents do happen- but I do not think this was one of those times.
When watching the play live I immediately thought it was an intentionally dangerous play by Zaza Pachulia. I can’t say for certain that it was a dirty play or that he is a dirty player; however in my eyes it was intentionally unsportsmanlike at the very least. The context in this case is as important as the play itself, because the video of the play does not provide a clear conclusion regarding Zaza’s intent. (More on the context in a minute...)
As far as the play goes, to me it looks like the little-extra-hop Pachulia does at the end to get into the landing zone of Kawhi Leonard was intentional. As Coach Popovich said- “A totally unnaturally closeout that the League has outlawed years ago, and pays great attention to it.”
Shaquille O’Neal also made an interesting point. He believes the play was intentionally dirty by Pachulia, as does his co-host on NBA Tonight Charles Barkley. Shaq said- “When you have feet as big as Zaza and you make a play like that, you know there’s a 50/50 chance the shooter will land on you.”
I spoke with a referee of the NBL of Canada- (and granted he doesn’t have the experience of an NBA ref)- but his opinion is still an educated one, and he believes that the play by Pachulia was intentional.
The important context and background info that should be considered is the following:
a) The Warriors are fully aware that Kawhi Leonard is the most important player to the Spurs chances of beating them, and that he was hobbled at the end of the 2nd round series with a bad ankle.
Entering Game 1, every player and coach on the Warriors would be aware of which ankle was bothering Kawhi.
b) Leonard had rolled his ankle twice earlier in the game, not long before the play by Zaza that ultimately knocked him out. Once on a fluky play out-of-bounds after a shot, and the other just moments before ‘the Zaza play’ while getting tied up with a G-State player on a rebound.
c) Zaza Pachulia has had a number of questionable incidents in his career that cannot be discounted. He’s made a few reckless plays where he could have injured an opponent as part of an unnatural play. One of these incidences happened to be an arm-bar-tackle-play on Kawhi Leonard which was clearly unsportsmanlike and would be fairly called a ‘dirty play’.
I don’t believe he should get the benefit of the doubt when you combine the video, with the context of the overall situation as described above.
In my opinion, Pachulia was aware of Kawhi’s vulnerability and wanted to throw him off his game and/or ‘mess with his head’. I’m not saying he wanted to hurt Leonard- (maybe he did)- but I think he knew what he was doing and was trying to rattle the Spurs’ star.
This is the first NBA playoff series since 1998 featuring two 60+ win teams and now it’s been compromised by an ugly injury- caused by a player that should rarely be on the floor during this series. If I were NBA Commissioner Zaza Pachulia would not be playing in Game 2. A 1-game suspension would be appropriate for his play on Leonard.
Even if I am mistaken, and it was a total accident by Zaza, his recklessness leading to the loss of a star player and a compromised Game 1 result could warrant a 1-game suspension. The NBA more than any other league takes care of its stars.
I think it is fair to ask whether or not the NBA would have handled the situation differently had it cost one of their ‘glamour-teams’ such an important game. Imagine a deep-bench player on the Spurs like Kyle Anderson or Davis Bertans making the same play on Kevin Durant or Steph Curry when they were clearly already hobbled and vulnerable.
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