Popovich rips Pachulia’s dirty play; if series gets out of hand, don’t rule out old-time retribution
There is a point when certain teams in certain circumstances covertly forget about the result of a playoff series and resolve to enforce the consequences. This can happen when they believe the result to be unjust.
In hockey, it happens at the ends of 4-0 games, maybe when a series is already 2-0 or 3-1 and the outcome of a game is forgone. Then, certain guys from the losing team are known to ask, “Wanna go?”
In the NBA of 25 and 30 years ago, we used to see the same thing when a point needed to be made and suspensions for fighting weren’t so common. If business needed to be tended to, it was.
Now, the San Antonio Spurs are not known for scofflaw behavior. And Greg Popovich is not exactly the second coming of Chuck Daly as a ringleader of sketchy characters. But since they’ve lost their superstar to a questionable act by a skeezy NBA journeyman who has that look of a low-level Soviet-era operative, I would say all bets are off.
By now, you’ve either heard of or seen the video of Warriors big forward Zaza Pachulia taking a deliberate step away from his center of gravity and Spurs star Kawhi Leonard descending from a corner jumper and landing with his sore left ankle on a foot the 33-year-old from the former Soviet republic of Georgia placed beneath him.
It’s the sort of gamesmanship that’s been around the NBA forever. It’s just especially weaselly in this particular case.
This act not only changed a Western Conference finals Game 1 the Spurs led by 23 points to that juncture. It promises to extinguish any chance San Antonio had to upset Golden State. The perpetrator is a career eighth-man. The victim is a 2014 NBA Finals MVP and 2017 regular-season MVP candidate.
It was announced today that Leonard is out for tomorrow night’s Game 2. He already missed Game 6 of the Spurs’ Western semifinal against the Rockets with an injury to the same ankle. But he had been playing brilliantly on Sunday and the Spurs were threatening to steal Game 1 from the heavily favored Warriors in Oakland.
Now, there seems no way the Spurs can compete, if indeed Leonard can even play in Game 3 back in San Antonio. They just don’t have the firepower.
And so, Popovich vented this afternoon during a post-practice press conference in Oakland. He called Pachulia’s move “totally unnatural,” implying that he tried to step under Leonard’s left foot. The coach then listed a litany of dirty plays Pachulia made when he played with the Mavericks, previously involving Leonard, Patty Mills and David West:
“Think about the history he’s had and what that means to a team and what happened last night – a totally unnatural close-out that the league has outlawed years ago, and pays great attention to it. And [now] Kawhi’s not there.”
Here, Popovich grew acidly sarcastic:
“And you wanna know we feel about it. You wanna know if that lessens our chances or not. We’re playing very possibly the best team in the league and 9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors would beat the Spurs.
“Well, we’ve had a pretty damn good season. And we’re up 23 points in the third quarter. And Kawhi goes down. Like that. And you wanna know how we feel and if our chances are less? That’s how we feel.”
Look, I’m not making an ironclad prediction here. I’m just saying take cover if this series now gets out of hand, say 2-0 and clearly headed for 3-0 in the late stages on Saturday night in San Antonio. We could see a little re-visitation of the old days. Cue Elvis Costello’s Goon Squad.
Now, you may say, that’s not Popovich’s style and certainly not the Spurs’ during his watch. I think this guy is a competitor above all and he is seriously pissed off. And if he wants to make a point and the consequences are minimal at some point, we might see someone like, oh, I don’t know, DeWayne Dedmon inserted during mop-up time with a purpose on his mind. Then, buckle up.
Golden State, remember, is without its spiritual patriarch, the levelheaded Steve Kerr. The Warriors are increasingly being viewed as spoiled children, the rich kids with every toy, since acquiring Kevin Durant. Gone are the days when Draymond Green was considered colorful; now, he’s just mouthy. Steph Curry isn’t quite such a lovable little engine that could from Davidson anymore; now, he’s a smug mouthpiece-chewing hotshot who might need to be chopped down a peg.
It’s the way of American sport to love the upstart on their way up and become sick of them at the summit. The Warriors are looking a little too wonderful for their own good these days. Especially to Pop, I would guess.
So, if you were a fan of the old days when Laimbeer and Mahorn used to troll for trouble with the Bad Boys Pistons or the really old days when Red Auerbach used to send out head-crackers like Jim Loscutoff to make a point on behalf of his more skilled Celtics teammates, well, stay tuned. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.
And no one outside of the Bay will be cheering for the Warriors this time.
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org