The Western Conference Finals began Sunday, May 14th at 3:30 Eastern time. The Spurs had just came off a huge 39-point win over the Houston Rockets without starting point guard Tony Parker and starting small forward Kawhi Leonard. While Parker is out for the playoffs, the Spurs’ best player Kawhi Leonard was questionable for the game. Well, we found out the day before that Kawhi was going to indeed play in Game 1, looking to stun the Warriors.
In the first period, the Spurs came out and punched the number one seed Warriors square in the mouth. The Spurs had set the pace and were controlling the tempo of the game and this carried over into the entire 2nd quarter: San Antonio went into halftime leading by 20 points.
Looking for answers, the Warriors came out and went on a 10-3 run to cut the lead to 15 points. The Spurs took the Warriors’ first punch but came back swinging harder. Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs on an 11-3 run, extending the lead up to 23-points. It was at this moment though when everything changed.
At the 9:45 mark, Leonard matched a Stephen Curry three and as he stepped back, he stepped on the shoe of a teammate sitting on the bench and minorly tweaked his previously injured ankle. Then at the 7:54 mark, Leonard rose to take a shot over Zaza Pachulia but was fouled. As Leonard was landing, Pachulia failed to give him the proper space needed and Leonard’s foot landed right on Pachulia’s. Kawhi unfortunately severely injured that same ankle he had hurt earlier in the quarter and was taken to the locker room after knocking down two-free throws.
The tables turned drastically after the heart and soul of the Spurs was taken out. After Leonard left the floor the Warriors went on an 18-0 run. The momentum had turned a complete 180, and the Warriors were right back in the game. It was unfortunate that the injury happened to Leonard, but there was still plenty of game left to be played.
As soon as the injury occurred, and after the Warriors cut marginally into the lead, tweets of Pachulia’s foul become the dominate talk of the Twitterverse. Most notable was Undisputed’s Skip Bayless. Bayless has publicly displayed his fandom for the Spurs, but he was beside himself after this injury turned the game. He let out tweets that said, “New Golden State MVP: Zaza Pachulia”, “Zaza’s team should be ashamed of itself if it can’t win this game against a Spurs team without Kawhi and Tony Parker”. He continued later in the evening, “Way to go Zaza, you just carried your team to the NBA Finals” followed by “The more I think about what Zaza did to Kawhi, and Golden State’s lucky long rebounds and Curry’s late luck shot, IT MAKES ME EVEN SICKER.”
The more I think about what Zaza did to Kawhi, and GSt's lucky long rebounds and Curry's late lucky shot, IT MAKES ME EVEN SICKER.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 15, 2017
While Bayless can come across as irrational and ridiculous, this lit the Twitter world on fire. Along with that, Sam Mitchell said on NBA TV, “That’s a dirty, dirty play”. If you go back and watch the play, it appears that Pachulia may have taken an extra, unneeded step to crowd the landing space for Leonard. During the post-game press conference Kevin Durant said, “you can’t listen to people on Twitter, they’re irrational”. Leonard was asked the same question and he said “Do I think he did it on purpose? No. He was just contesting the shot as the shot clock was coming down. I haven’t seen the replay”.
Despite questions of whether the play was dirty or not, the biggest stat that needs to be recognized came from Shayne Young of FanRag, 16 Wins a Ring and BBall Breakdown: The Spurs’ offensive rating was 128.2 with Leonard on the floor and 91.4 without him. The Spurs’ defensive rating was 92 with Leonard on the floor and 137.8 without Leonard on the floor. The numbers don’t lie.
When Leonard was in the game, the Spurs’ offensive rhythm was exactly at the tempo and pace they wanted to play. When Leonard stepped off the floor, the Warriors dictated the pace. It really is stunning to see how depleted the Spurs really are without Kawhi on the court. Aldridge had himself a terrific game, but he couldn’t carry this Spurs team without Leonard.
The bottom line is the Spurs were up 25 points at one point in the 3rd quarter but were ultimately outscored 71-49. That is an astonishing 22-point swing. The Spurs still had a chance to pull this game out after the Warriors took the lead but failed.
Speculation around the league is that the Spurs would’ve won this game easily had Leonard not been injured in the 3rd. However, I think we owe the Warriors some credit. While the Warriors did catch a break, they had huge games from Durant and Curry. These two MVP caliber players carried this team and took advantage of the opportunity in front of them. Shame on Zaza for not allowing Leonard to come down cleanly, but shame on the Spurs for failing to keep separation and allowing Golden State a chance to steal game 1 back.
I think it’s easy to see why some call this a dirty play and why some can say it was just a natural play. My first thought was, “Wow, this was an extremely dirty play. Pachulia slid into him”. But after watching the replay, I started to believe it was just coincidental. The NBA has become a brotherhood and we don’t see guys intentionally taking other players out. Pachulia said, “it’s stupid to think he intentionally hurt Kawhi”.
So: Fair play or foul? I truly don’t believe Pachulia intentionally hurt him but after sitting here watching the replay on repeat, I have a hard time ignoring the extra step Pachulia took. It’s debatable whatever side you take, but let’s not just look at this play specifically, let’s look at how as a whole the Spurs played without Leonard on the floor. They were utterly atrocious and the Warriors took complete advantage of the weaknesses the Spurs displayed without Leonard. The Spurs failed to make key plays down the stretch and they blew a huge opportunity to make this series more compelling.