Game 1 of Warriors-Spurs was the worst great game I’ve ever seen. It was filled with objectively awesome things: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant catapulted Golden State to victory from a 25-point first-half deficit, one of the best teams we’ve ever seen showing there are no mountains it can’t climb. The Spurs were 316–0 under Gregg Popovich when playing with a 25-point lead, and after Sunday’s 113–111 loss, that 100 percent winning percentage has been bumped down to a dismal 99.68 winning percentage.
But that comeback came after Kawhi Leonard aggravated his ankle injury, his exit immediately leading to an 18–0 Golden State run. Without their best player, the Spurs offense turned into a series of LaMarcus Aldridge fadeaways and turnovers, and the Warriors offense did the explosion thing we just talked about. (Don’t tell any of this to the Rockets, who, in case you forgot, lost by 39 to the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard in an elimination game at home four days ago.)
I’m rooting for the Warriors to win this series — not because I like the Warriors, but because I would love to see a threequel to the brilliant Warriors-Cavs Finals of the past two years — but I cringed watching Golden State storm back against a team robbed of its best player and its verve. It felt wrong, and exacerbating that feeling of wrongness was the way Leonard hurt his ankle: With an assist from Zaza Pachulia.
Did Pachulia intentionally undercut the opposing star with a pre-existing ankle injury? This could be the most important play of the NBA season, so let’s analyze it with the detail it deserves.
Oh, This Was Dirty As Heck
Let’s consider the player here.
Zaza Pachulia’s biggest fans are the Macedonian and Georgian spambots that nearly got him voted into the All-Star Game; his biggest detractors are fans of any team he plays against. He is modestly useful — he has fun passing the ball, hits good shots, and plays stalwart defense. But that defense toes the line between physical and ugly. He gave Russell Westbrook a pair of elbows to the head earlier this year. Last year as a member of the Mavericks, he infuriated San Antonio fans by yanking and twisting the arm of some dude on the Spurs named Kawhi Leonard:
And earlier in Game 1, before his fateful rendezvous with Leonard, he gave Patty Mills a forearm shiver in the guise of a screen:
Pachulia has played smaller roles on worse teams than the Warriors, but he has been elevated to a position of prominence on this team in part because of his tendency to get physical. It’s not surprising he’d be the one to injure the biggest threat to the Warriors.
Oh, Come On, That Was Basketball
Contesting a jumper is hard. A defender’s job is to thunder toward a shooter as loudly and largely as possible and then somehow not make contact with the thing he just sprinted toward. The difference between a great contest and a hideous foul is a few milliseconds or inches.
In that split second, Pachulia was probably just thinking about getting a hand up. He probably didn’t have the foresight to think, "Man, what if I shoved my foot under his foot?" then stare at the ground, locate the spot where he needed to put his foot, and execute. Even if he did, I’m not so sure a big, clumsy doof like Pachulia could execute.
Pachulia called people who thought the foul was dirty "stupid":
Leonard said the play wasn’t dirty — not that Leonard would ever be the one to start drama, as his drama-starting chip hasn’t been installed yet.
Kevin Durant had some stern words, too:
It happens. It happened in the Celtics-Wizards series, with a player with no reputation for dirtiness against a noncritical member of the opposing team with no history of ankle injuries. Even I’ve been undercut while shooting, and I barely leave the ground on my garbage jumper. It is part of basketball, and it is a bummer.
Oh, Come On, You Think the Warriors Didn’t Try This Intentionally?
Golden State has a few of the best basketball players ever, and also some dudes willing to kick your face in for any perceived or real threats to the best basketball players ever.
There’s Draymond Green, an incredible and versatile talent, but he’s also so dedicated to smacking or kicking opponents in the crotch that he missed a game in the NBA Finals for it. The Warriors added full-time ruckus starter and part-time basketball player Matt Barnes halfway through this season. And then there’s Pachulia.
Here is a Golden State assistant coach talking last year about the danger of defenders getting too close to the precious ankles of Steph Curry, which were injured often in his early years:
Of all the teams in the NBA, this is the one that is perhaps most aware that an undercut on a weakened ankle could be disastrous, and that it could be disguised as a pretty reasonable basketball play.
When I was 8 years old, I watched my beloved Knicks get outmatched by the Spurs in the NBA Finals. I went to my dad with a proposal: The Knicks should take their worst player, Rick Brunson, and have him hack David Robinson and Tim Duncan to death with a chainsaw. He’d get ejected and go to prison, sure, but the Knicks could afford to lose him and the Spurs could not afford to lose Robinson and Duncan. (I apparently didn’t consider how the rest of the Knicks might get arrested for conspiracy to commit murder.) Eighteen years later, the Warriors have opted for a slightly subtler version of the same theory. Leonard was their biggest threat, and with a sneaky move by a not-so-critical player, he was eliminated on Sunday.
Oh, Come On, We’re Supposed to Feel Sorry For the Spurs Now?
I spent about five minutes deciding which video of Bruce Bowen shoving his leg under a jump shooter to use. I picked this one:
I feel for Kawhi Leonard, but still find irony in this wrestling heel having his finishing move used against them.
Either Way, This Freakin’ Sucks
We’ll never know if Pachulia’s play was intentional or not. While it’s fun to debate, and those debates shape our perceptions of players and teams, the league could never suspend somebody over something that could so easily be an accident. It is done.
Now the Spurs face an uncertain future — Leonard is getting MRIs on Sunday night on the ankle. On the one hand, San Antonio seemed hapless without him Sunday. On the other, the Spurs are 8–1 without Leonard this year, including the 39-point win against the Rockets. (In case you forgot: Houston lost by 39 to the Spurs in an elimination game at home even though the Spurs didn’t have Kawhi Leonard. This is not a duplicate of the earlier text: I think we all need to be reminded of this frequently.) San Antonio looked outmatched at the beginning of that series, losing by 27 to a gunning Rockets squad in Game 1, but Popovich tends to figure things out as he goes along. He might do the same here.
The problem is, these are the Golden State Warriors. As much as some may dislike them, they are astoundingly good. Not every team could have run off those 18 points immediately following Leonard’s injuries; not every team could have continued forging forward after San Antonio regained its balance.
The best-case scenario is this costs the Spurs only one game, which is still a pretty big deal against a juggernaut who leaves opponents no margin for error. Perhaps the Spurs can mount some sort of opposition with a hobbled Leonard, but I really wanted to know whether they were capable of beating these Warriors at full strength. And through about three quarters, they sure looked like they could.