Zaza Pachulia, inadvertently or not, has cheated us out of what could have been a classic series.
If only for that, Warriors fans should be upset with him.
I’m referring to the ankle-slide heard round the world, which happened during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday. With the Spurs up big, the Warriors’ Pachulia stepped out to contest a Kawhi Leonard jumper … and kept stepping. With Leonard mid-air, the big man placed his foot under Leonard’s, with Leonard landing on it, injuring his ankle and being forced out of the game.
The Warriors charged back, scoring 18 straight points after Leonard limped off and then eventually won the game, 113-111.
The big question remains: Did Pachulia mean to do it?
My lukewarm take is this: It doesn’t matter.
Why? Because we’ll never know.
We will most likely never know whether Pachulia intended to hurt Leonard on that play. Unless he comes out one day – and I’d guess if he ever did, it’d be a long time from now – and say “Yeah, I meant to do it and I regret it,” there’s just no way we’ll ever know for certain. (I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Zaza Pachulia autobiography which comes clean on all of this.) The play was so fast, and these athletes are so large and moving so quickly, it’s hard to say from just watching it.
And the play also will reveal your rooting interests: If you say it was 100 percent an accident and there’s no way Pachulia meant to do anything, odds are you’re pulling for the Warriors. If you say unequivocally and without doubt Pachulia meant to hurt him, odds are you’re rooting for the Spurs.
For me, a casual observer with no rooting interest: It didn’t look good for Pachulia. If I had to guess, he was trying to get in under Leonard. But I also can see the other side, and have no real idea. Helpful, I know.
It’s entirely possible Pachulia doesn’t think he meant to hurt him. We’ve all been there, especially those of us who are or were athletes – you may do something in the moment that, deep down, even you aren’t sure. Things happen quickly. Was Pachulia finishing the play and trying to contest the shot? Or did he knowingly take those extra steps? It might not be clear in his head – maybe he was trying to close out the shot … and then instinct took over. Maybe he was just trying to close out the shot and reset his feet because he lost his balance.
Or maybe he’s just a dirty player who did what he could to try and get his team back in the game.
Again: Odds are, we’re never going to know. So it doesn’t much matter.
For his part, immediately after the game, Leonard said he didn’t think Pachulia meant to do it, though he did add that he’d need to go and look at the play. What it will tell him? Unclear. There’s a reason the slide-in is so reviled by NBA players – it’s so hard to prove, and so debilitating. Guys in the league have been sliding their foot under someone mid-jump shot for years, twisting many an ankle in the process. It’s so hard for the league to police as well – if a guy throws an elbow, there’s little doubt. If he shifts his foot? It’s a play that happens accidentally all the time. How can you know it was on purpose?
Which is why it’s also doubtful the league will punish Pachulia for it – if you aren’t 100 percent certain, and even Leonard isn’t 100 percent certain, then how can you punish him? Punish him for clumsiness? If clumsiness were punished then Matthew Dellavedova would be banned for life. (Sorry, Bucks fans. That was a cheap shot.)
Kyle TeradaKyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
This play will remain nothing more than a talking point. Something for Spurs and Warriors fans to argue over not only now but into the future.
The one thing that is 100 percent certain: The play, intended or not, dirty or accidental, has cheated us out of seeing these two teams at their absolute best. No matter what you think of Pachulia’s intent, you can be mad at him for that.