OAKLAND, Calif. — Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia said he has “a lot of respect” for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but he disagrees with Popovich’s assertion that his defensive closeout on Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals was “dangerous” and “unsportsmanlike.”
“My approach to this game for 14 years that I’ve been in the league is to play hard and [give] 100 percent of whatever I have,” Pachulia said in response to Popovich on Monday after practice. “So, I don’t agree with the calls that I’m a dirty player. I’m not a dirty player. I love this game and I’m playing hard. That’s what I was taught since day one.”
The NBA said Monday that Pachulia will not face any discipline and that the play will stand as called.
When Leonard was attempting a long 2 near the Spurs’ bench in the third quarter of the Warriors’ 113-111 win on Monday, Pachulia rotated over to contest the shot. Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot, further tweaking his already-sprained left ankle. Popovich argues that Pachulia intentionally slid his foot outward to make contact with Leonard.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year fell to the hardwood in agony. He managed to get up and take his two free throws before exiting to the locker room. He would not return.
Leonard isn’t expected to play in Game 2 on Tuesday.
“The two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich said. “It’s dangerous, it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s just not what anybody does to anybody else. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action. You can go back and look in 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. And then think about the history he’s had and what that means to a team, what happened last night.”
West, who was a member of the Spurs last season, was surprised to be brought into the discussion.
“I mean, Zaza is my teammate,” he said. “He plays hard. He’s just trying to win. That’s as far as it’s going to go … Just playing hard, man. He’s an aggressive guy. That’s who he is. That’s who he’s always been.”
Warriors acting coach Mike Brown said Popovich is just protecting his guys. He also added that Pachulia’s incident wasn’t the only questionable play, and another one involved the back-to-back MVP.
“Steph [Curry] shot the ball and LaMarcus Aldridge went to contest and he went up underneath Steph and Steph avoided landing on his ankle by falling to the ground,” Brown said. “And I even asked two of the three officials, I said ‘Hey, that’s the same call you just called on Zaza’ and both of them told me the difference was Kawhi landed on Zaza’s foot. Steph avoided landing on LaMarcus’ foot and that’s why they didn’t call a foul. It’s the same play. Zaza is not a dirty player. LaMarcus is not a dirty player. It’s a tough basketball play. You hate to see anybody get injured on a situation like that. But you go back and watch the film, they’re both identical.”
Draymond Green, who is notorious for inserting his opinion, stayed mute on the topic.
“Nah, I don’t have a response. So, Game 2?” he said. Moments later, he departed, saying, “Everybody’s stumped I didn’t have nothing to say about Zaza.”
Pachulia was adamant that he did not mean to cause harm to Leonard. He said the criticism doesn’t bother him, but he continued to stress he was making a basketball play.
“I did whatever I had to do,” he said. “There was a right defense from my side, to challenge the shot. I wished he didn’t land on my foot and honestly, I had no idea that he landed on my foot until turn back and he was already on the ground. Because as soon as he released the ball, I turned around and tried to chase the rebound and see where the ball was going and then apparently, he landed on my foot.”
With Leonard’s status for the remainder of the series in limbo, Pachulia was extremely apologetic for what occurred. He said it’s just one of those things that happens during competition.
“I really feel bad for the guy,” Pachulia said. “I wish it didn’t happen, [wish it] had a different result basically. But again, it’s a game there’s stuff you can’t control it right. I have a lot of respect for Kawhi. I think he’s one of the best players in this league and I wish him all the best to get healthy. But, we’re going to move on. This is the game of basketball. A lot of crazy stuff happens on the court, unfortunately.”