Gregg Popovich is furious with Zaza Pachulia. The San Antonio Spurs head coach will be without his best player for at least Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals and he has focused his ire at the Golden State Warriors center. Kawhi Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot in the third quarter of Game 1 on Sunday, further injuring an already gimpy left ankle. Popovich has a reason to be angry, Pachulia’s close-out on the play was dirty, there is no question about it.
If you watch the replay, Pachulia closed out to Leonard under control, but keep an eye on his left foot. He clearly reaches it to a spot under where Leonard will land, then re-sets it even further under him. It’s practically a lunge.
Did Pachulia mean to hurt Leonard? I don’t know what was in the man’s head and would never claim to. That said, it doesn’t matter whether he meant to or not, the play was dirty. You can’t put your foot under a player in the air. It’s dangerous and Pachulia has no right to the landing space under Leonard.
Here’s another example of a dirty play where “intent” may not matter: If a player grabs a rebound while in traffic and puts his elbows out to protect the ball, that’s legal. If he then swings them wildly to clear space and winds up hitting an opponent, I don’t know whether or not he did that on purpose. But it’s still a dirty play because of the danger involved. Pachulia’s “defensive technique” is similar. Putting your foot or leg under an opponent in the air is never not dangerous.
I played basketball on a relatively high level for the better part of a decade and I can tell you right now, you always know where your feet are as a defender. You can’t just accidentally put your feet that far from your body. If you don’t know where your feet are in relation to the player you’re guarding, you shouldn’t even be on a basketball floor.
Again, on that replay, Pachulia lunges at Leonard, then sticks his foot even further under him. Did he do it on purpose? We’ll never know. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong or dangerous. It’s the kind of play the NBA has tried to discourage over the past few years and if the league truly wants to send a message, it will start fining and suspending players who do it. Maybe then Pachulia will start to pay more attention to where his feet are defensively.