OAKLAND, Calif. — Kawhi Leonard was willing to give Zaza Pachulia a pass, but his coach had other ideas.
San Antonio’s All-Star forward was forced from Game 1 of the Western Conference finals when he re-aggravated a left ankle sprain by landing on Pachulia’s foot while completing a jump shot. Leonard told reporters after Game 1 that he didn’t believe the Warriors center had intentionally slid underneath him, and Pachulia denied that he was trying to hurt Leonard. Golden State mounted a major comeback following the third-quarter incident to claim a 113–111 victory.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, however, wasn’t ready to move on. Speaking to reporters at practice on Monday, Popovich said that he “not a happy camper” before lighting into Pachulia’s “unsportsmanlike” foul and calling attention to his history of flagrant fouls.
"The two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich said, his voice growing irritated. “It's dangerous, it's unsportsmanlike, it's just not what anybody does to anybody else. … Think about the history [Pachulia has] had and what that means to a team, what happened last night. Totally unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago and pays great attention to. And Kawhi's not there.
"We're playing very possibly the best team in the league, we don't know what's going to happen in the East; 9.75 people out of 10 would figure that the Warriors will beat the Spurs. We've had a pretty damn good season, we've played fairly well in the playoffs, I think we're getting better. And we're up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down like that. And you want to know if our chances are less and you want to know how we feel. That's how we feel."
Popovich then listed numerous prior incidents between Pachulia and various members of the Spurs. During a February game last season, when Pachulia was a member of the Mavericks, he locked up Leonard’s arm during a loose ball and exchanged physical play with Warriors forward David West, who was then a member of the Spurs.
And in a January game between the Spurs and Mavericks, Pachulia was hit with a flagrant foul for elbowing Patty Mills in the head while grappling for rebounding positions.
"This particular individual has a history with that kind of action,” Popovich said. “You can look back at Dallas games where he got a flagrant 2 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.”
After Game 1, SI.com argued that Pachulia’s intent was irrelevant and that the NBA must do more to protect vulnerable players while they are in the shooting motion. The league has publicly called these plays “dangerous” and it currently penalizes them as a defensive foul, rather than as a flagrant foul or with a fine or suspension.
To Popovich, Pachulia’s history adds context to his slide underneath Leonard, further erasing the argument that the foul should be viewed solely as an unfortunate accident.
"Because he's got this history, [people say] 'It was inadvertent. He didn't have intent.' Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter?” Popovich asked. “You still go to jail I think when you're a Texan and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that. All I care is what I saw, all I care about is what happened. the history there exacerbates the situation and makes me very, very angry."
Pachulia stuck to his story at Warriors practice on Monday, repeating his previous statements that he was merely trying to contest Leonard’s shot and that he hadn’t intended to slide underneath him.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Pop and their organization,” Pachulia said. “[The criticism from Popovich] doesn't bother me. I did what I had to do. That was the right defense from my side: To challenge the shot. I wish he hadn't landed on my foot and, honestly, I had no idea he had landed on my foot until I turned around and saw he was on the ground.”
Leonard, who missed part of Game 5 and all of Game 6 against the Rockets in the second round due to ankle problems, will likely sit out Tuesday’s Game 2 against the Warriors in Oakland. The series will then take an extended break before San Antonio hosts Game 3 on Saturday. It’s unclear whether the league will further investigate Pachulia’s foul.