San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich ripped Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia on Monday for a controversial foul that injured Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
During the third quarter, Pachulia closed out on a Leonard shot attempt and appeared to put his foot under Leonard following the shot.
Leonard, whose injured ankle had already kept him out of Game 6 and part of Game 5 of the Spurs' second-round series against the Rockets, landed on Pachulia's foot and had to leave the game. The Warriors promptly went on an 18-0 run, erasing most of a 23-point Spurs' lead. They later won the game 113-111, outscoring the Spurs by 25 points without Leonard for most of the second half.
While it was unclear if Pachulia's foot placement was intentional, Popovich blasted Pachulia for "a totally unnatural close-out" and listed past incidents that he considers dirty plays by Pachulia.
"A two-step, lead-with-your-foot close-out is not appropriate. 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 at Dallas games where he got a flagrant two 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, 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. A totally unnatural closeout that the league outlawed years ago and pays great attention to it."
Popovich then angrily broke down how the injury affects the Spurs' title chances.
"You wanna know if [Leonard's injury] lessens our chances or not? We're playing very possibly the best team in the league. We don't know what's gonna happen in the East. 9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors are gonna beat the Spurs. Well, we've had a pretty damn good season, we've played fairly well in the playoffs, I think we're getting better. We're up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down. Like that. And you wanna know if our chances are less? And you wanna know how we feel? That's how we feel."
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) May 15, 2017
At the time of Popovich's media availability, Leonard was getting an MRI. Popovich said the Spurs expect Leonard to miss Game 2.
As many people pointed out, Pachulia's "foot trick" has been around the NBA for years, and former Spurs wing Bruce Bowen was perhaps the most famous player to slide his foot under jump shooters, risking potential injury. The Spurs retired Bowen's number, leading some to consider Popovich's rant hypocritical.
Leonard, after Game 1, said he did not think Pachulia was trying to intentionally hurt him. Pachulia also defended himself, saying that big men often get called for many fouls that are unintentional.
Popovich, however, brushed aside the intent, saying, "I don't give a damn about intent, you still go to jail for manslaughter."
Here's the play:
Popovich was likely trying to draw the league's attention to other potential fouls the Warriors commit during the game, perhaps even trying to get the league to punish Pachulia. It seems unlikely that the NBA would retroactively punish Pachulia for the foul, particularly if the intent was not clear.
Still, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller noted, one player making dirty plays does not mean others should follow suit. For now, the Spurs trail 1-0 in the series, and if Leonard misses any time, the Spurs are in big trouble.