Zaza Pachulia explains why it’s ‘stupid’ to believe he tried to injure Kawhi Leonard
When the Golden State Warriors travel to San Antonio for Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Zaza Pachulia might want to steer clear of room service or restaurants.
There will be plenty of glares from Spurs fans, who might never forgive him for owning the foot that Kawhi Leonard landed on, a pivotal moment in a game that San Antonio led by as many as 25 points.
Leonard exited with 7:53 left in the third quarter Sunday after spraining his left ankle. He never returned and the Spurs were never the same. The Warriors ran off 18 consecutive points to cut the deficit to five after Leonard’s injury and eventually won 113-111 at Oracle Arena to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Without Leonard, the Spurs couldn’t counter an onslaught from Stephen Curry (40 points) and Kevin Durant (34 points). Curry’s floater with 9.5 seconds to play gave the Warriors a 113-110 lead, just enough to hold off any late rally attempt by the Spurs.
But much of the focus was on Pachulia and whether there was intent to injure Leonard. The internet was quickly filled with fans and media accusing him of taking Leonard out on purpose after he’d already tweaked the ankle earlier in the quarter and during this postseason.
It’s considered underhanded to slide a foot under a jump shooter and prevent a clean landing, and Pachulia said that’s not what he tried to do.
“I mean that’s really stupid,” Pachulia said of anyone thinking he tried to injure Leonard. “... Did my part like I said, I tried to challenge the shot. It was a handoff situation, I saw my teammate was behind the screen and I just challenged the shot. That’s what I did, turned around for the rebound and that was it. I hate anybody going down like that with an injury. I’m an athlete, too, so I know how it feels.”
One person who agrees with Pachulia is Leonard, who had 26 points and eight rebounds when he left the game.
“Did he step under it, like on purpose?” Leonard said. “No, he was contesting the shot, the shot clock was coming down. I’ll have to see the play.”
The Warriors outscored the Spurs 58-33 the rest of the game without Leonard, who is their best offensive and defensive player.
Pachulia was a big part of the Warriors’ comeback. He helped defend Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge late in the game, doing enough to keep him off balance at a time the Spurs needed his offense.
Pachulia played the entire third quarter, something that’s uncommon, as the Warriors made their push back from a slothful first half.
He had 11 points, nine rebounds and three assists for the game in addition to being a nuisance with his activity. Aldridge finished with 28 points, but only eight after Leonard exited.
“Like I told (Pachulia) after the game, I said, ‘You changed the tempo of the game,’ ” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “ ‘You changed the pace. You started getting physical for us.’ He started that run.”
It also helps that four All-Stars are in the starting lineup with Pachulia.
Even though the Warriors were down 25, they never wavered in believing they could win. The Warriors are 9-0 this postseason.
They also got a pep talk from head coach Steve Kerr, who has not been on the sidelines since the opening round of the playoffs while dealing with health problems related to his back surgery two years ago.
“We have a veteran team,” acting head coach Mike Brown said. “I know Steve is here today, and he saw some things from afar that gave us a little bit of life, too, that he relayed to the group and relayed to us as a staff.”
Looking ahead to Game 2, injuries will play a factor for both teams. The Spurs will keep tabs on Leonard’s ankle. The Warriors will have to see about Andre Iguodala, their key sixth man, who was limited to 10 minutes, 12 seconds on the floor due to a sore.
Brown said Iguodala looked “hobbled” Sunday and he will have an MRI on Monday.