Gregg Popovich, as it turns out, won’t be taking the high road in light of Kawhi Leonard’s latest ankle injury.
Midway through the third quarter in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Zaza Pachulia closed out on a Leonard three-pointer, invariably hopping his way into the All-Star forward’s landing space. Leonard turned his left ankle, the same one he injured against the Houston Rockets in Round 2, and the same one he turned earlier in the quarter. He is not expected to be available for Game 2, and his future beyond that for this series is up in the air.
On Monday, Popovich lit into Pachulia, holding nothing back, per SI.com’s Ben Golliver:
Gregg Popovich goes off on Zaza Pachulia's "dangerous, unsportsmanlike… totally unnatural closeout" on Kawhi Leonard & cites his "history" pic.twitter.com/mfEtWNfGJ6
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 15, 2017
As some dirtbag (me) pointed out, it’s pretty surreal to hear Popovich talk about this play when he won so many games by deploying Bruce Bowen, who made a living and reputation off these type of closeouts:
— Dan Favale (@danfavale) May 15, 2017
To be clear, this doesn’t negate Leonard’s injury. It sucks. It’s unfair. Again, the irony here is just bizarre.
Watching the play, it doesn’t appear like Pachulia’s closeout was intentional. A lot of players still close out this way, and there’s no way he had the forethought or time to precisely place his foot where Leonard was going to land.
Which isn’t to say Pachulia shouldn’t be classified as a dirty player. He might be. There is, as Popovich pointed out, a long history of him making questionable decisions. But he can be both a dirty player and this not be an intentionally dirty play. The NBA needs to address these closeouts so players are more cognizant of what they’re doing, but to use this play, this one single play, as a referendum on Pachulia’s overall character goes a bit far.
Sure, there’s a case to be made that he’s dirty as hell—even though he said otherwise. But this play cannot be a part of that argument. It’s not nearly strong enough evidence to conclude much of anything.