Gregg Popovich Is Pissed At Zaza
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|Description||:|| OAKLAND, Calif. – Gregg Popovich was in a rage Monday and came equipped with receipts while making an unusual character assassination of a player whom he believed ruined the San Antonio Spurs’ chances of upsetting the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. No amount of anger and no well-crafted argument denouncing Zaza Pachulia could change what was at the root of the rant: Kawhi Leonard’s sprained left ankle won’t heal in time for him to return for Game 2 on Tuesday and his status for the rest of a series in which the Spurs are a more extreme underdog remains in doubt. |
Pachulia was collateral damage for Popovich’s pain, the easy target of his frustrations after the Warriors’ big man slid under the Spurs’ best player in the second half of Sunday’s Game 1, contributing to an injury that helped San Antonio’s 23-point lead evaporate into a 113-111 defeat. Just because Pachulia has had a few questionable moments in his career, and has tangled with Leonard in the past, doesn’t mean that he sought to injure him while closing out on a jumper. Intent doesn’t necessarily absolve Pachulia from the offense of failing to give a shooter the necessary room to land. But the only reason that play has become so controversial is because Leonard was unable to finish the game and remains hobbled.
‘All I care about is Kawhi's not there,’ Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Monday.
None of that is fair, for Leonard, for the Spurs, or even the Warriors, who haven’t been able to get the best from any opponent this postseason. Portland didn’t have Jusuf Nurkic available for every game in the first round. Utah was without George Hill for the final two games of the second round. Both players were starters in pivotal roles for their respective teams, but Leonard is an MVP candidate who represents so much more for the Spurs’ present and future. That’s why Popovich has to handle Leonard delicately going forward and can’t risk choosing the short-term gain of his presence over the long-term impact of his career with the franchise.
“All I care about is Kawhi’s not there,” Popovich said. “You know, having your horses is important at this point in the deal. … Who gives a damn about what [Pachulia’s] intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you’re texting and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that. All I care about is what I saw. All I care about is what happened and the history there exacerbates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry.”
While it’s easy to blame Leonard’s injury on a clumsy, “two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout,” that doesn’t nullify how the Spurs’ best player was already playing – quite well, too – on a damaged wheel. Leonard hurt his ankle in the previous series against Houston while stepping on James Harden’s foot and missed the end of Game 5 and the entirety of Game 6. He also aggravated the same ankle stepping on teammate David Lee’s foot a few possessions before Pachulia made that fateful closeout.
Through a seemingly impenetrable mask, Leonard has always been able to suppress his emotions but he was unable to hide his obvious agony after stumbling over Lee. Leonard continued to plug along but considering how the game concluded, Popovich and his staff had to wonder, even briefly, if they made the right decision in not immediately giving their star a breather with a comfortable lead.
The Spurs have much to ponder going forward, even though the MRI results Monday revealed no structural damage in Leonard’s left ankle. During the anti-Pachulia tirade, Popovich let slip a little-known nugget about the team’s strategy in keeping Tim Duncan out of the playoffs for their first title defense in 2000, when the Spurs suffered a first-round sweep against the Phoenix Suns.
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