OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors got blitzed out of the gates by the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. It was pure domination, reminiscent of the first game of the season when the visitors beat the highly hyped Dubs by 29 points.
Then, things changed.
With just under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, Zaza Pachulia made a foul that could change the complexion of not just Game 1, but the entire Western Conference Finals.
Likely to be plenty of postgame chatter about Zaza sliding under Kawhi, especially if Warriors win pic.twitter.com/ygSdG01UAq
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 14, 2017
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ best player who has been nursing an ankle injury suffered earlier in the playoffs, landed on Pachulia’s foot after shooting a long 2-point jump shot.
It didn’t look like a foul because there was no contact on Leonard’s arms or torso as he shot. So, fans inside Oracle Arena were incensed about the whistle.
Those fans were wrong. It was the right call on a play with the worst effect: Leonard was ruled out of the remainder of the game shortly thereafter.
Of course what followed the Warriors’ 113-111 win has been a whirlwind of discussion, wondering “is Zaza a dirty player?” He, for one, doesn’t think so.
“That’s really stupid,” Pachulia reacted to being told some NBA fans believe he undercut the Spurs’ MVP candidate. “… I hate anybody going down like that with an injury. I’m an athlete too, so I know how it feels and I don’t wish that on anybody.”
But, players in the past have been judged harshly for making similar plays. See: Dahntay Jones on Kobe Bryant in 2013 and most of Bruce Bowen’s career.
Leonard’s status for the rest of the series is uncertain. He walked around the visitors’ locker room after the game with a slight limp and he was tended to by the San Antonio training staff.
“It’s hard to tell [how bad it is] right now, definitely couldn’t go in that last third quarter,” the soft-spoken Leonard said. “We’ll see how I get better each day.”
— jacob c. palmer (@jacobc_palmer) May 14, 2017
The Warriors trailed by 21 when Leonard went up for that attempt. They’d outscore the Spurs, 26-14, to close the third after he left.
In the fourth, it was more of the same as Kevin Durant (who finished with 34 points on 21 shots) and Stephen Curry (40 points, 7 rebounds) took advantage of the absence of the best perimeter defender in the NBA.
When Kawhi was playing, San Antonio was plus-21. After he went down, Golden State outscored its opponent by 23.
“We couldn’t get anybody to score,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “And they’re fairly talented, as it showed.”
Making matters more complicated, Pachulia played his best game of the postseason. He played the most minutes, grabbed the most rebounds and tied his 2017 playoffs-high for points. He wasn’t just some goon.
But the questions are going to dog this team and if Leonard’s injury lingers, that one play in the corner in front of the Spurs bench has the potential to mar the outcome of this series.
“Zaza’s not a dirty player,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time it perfectly if you want to hurt somebody. We’re not that type of team.”
Durant is right on both fronts: Pachulia’s foot landing where it did, limiting the best player on the opposing team’s roster, did occur at the most opportune time. And the Warriors aren’t a dirty team in general.
But it doesn’t look good. And it won’t look good for at least the next couple weeks as the replay constantly cycles through every sports show on television.
Was it a dirty play? That question will never have a definitive answer.
Was it fortunate for Golden State? In the short term, absolutely.
And those answers combined means that one sequence has the potential to blemish the Warriors’ legacy if they advance and win the NBA title.
All of a sudden, that “Super Villain” talk from the beginning of the season holds some validity. Whether the Warriors like it or not.