SAN FRANCISCO — The off days between playoff games are for using the media for deflection, misdirection and changing the subject. And San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich — a master at all of those things, despite his hot-and-cold relationship with the press — did so with aplomb Monday morning.
Popovich went on a lengthy, withering tirade against the conduct of Warriors Center Zaza Pachulia during Sunday’s opening game of the Western Conference finals. Pachulia’s foot got underneath Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard on a jump shot, causing Leonard to land on it and reinjure a sprained ankle he had initially suffered during San Antonio’s series against the Houston Rockets, and aggravated minutes earlier.
As usual, Popovich was set off by a question he didn’t like. In this case: How much more difficult will it be for the Spurs to contend with the Warriors without Leonard’s services, as they will have to for Game 2 on Tuesday night?
“Come on, man,” he began. “How much more difficult is it? How would it be if [Warriors guard Stephen] Curry didn’t play? How much more difficult would that be? I’m not a happy camper, but that’s a silly question. A two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate. It’s dangerous, it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s just not what anybody does to anybody else. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action.”
Popovich was clearly armed and ready with information about Pachulia’s past, listing off a litany of incidents that happened when Pachulia played against the Spurs while with the Dallas Mavericks as proof of his take on the situation being the accurate one.
“You can go back and look at Dallas games where he got a flagrant-two for elbowing Patty Mills,” Popovich said. “The play where he took Kawhi down and locked his arm in Dallas and could have broken his arm. Ask David West, his current teammate, how things went when Zaza was playing for Dallas and he and David got into it.
“Then think about the history he’s had and what that means to a team, what happened last night. A totally, unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago and pays great attention to it, and Kawhi’s not there. And you want to know how we feel about it. You want to know if that lessens our chances or not.
“We’re playing very possibly the best team in the league. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the East. Nine point seven five people out of 10 would figure the Warriors will beat the Spurs. Well, we’ve had a pretty damn good season. We’ve played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we’re getting better, and we’re up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down, like that, and you want to know if our chances are less, and you want to know how we feel. That’s how we feel.
Then Popovich smiled.
“Follow-ups?” he asked, drawing peals of laughter from the assembled media. “Does that pretty much cover it?”
It turned out, though, that Popovich was just getting started.
“No, I didn’t call the league,” Popovich said. “Why would I do that? They looked at the play. If they do something, they do something. If they don’t, they don’t. All I care about is Kawhi’s not there. You know, having your horses is important at this point in the deal. When you’re playing Golden State in their place and you’re playing like that, it’s pretty cool. And if he would have played and they had ended up winning, I’d go get dinner, have a glass of wine, wake up the next day, go to practice and move on.
“But this is crap. And because he’s got this history, it can’t just be, oh, it was inadvertent. He didn’t have intent. Who gives a damn about what his 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.”
Popovich’s rant, while undoubtedly coming from a place of extreme frustration because of both San Antonio’s 113-111 loss to Golden State and the loss of Leonard for the rest of Game 1 and at least all of Game 2, also comes with an additional benefit. It takes all of the attention off Popovich’s players and puts it squarely on his shoulders. It also eliminates any extra discussion of the fact that the Spurs still held a 23-point lead with 20 minutes left in the game when Leonard suffered the injury, only to allow it to slip away thanks to a furious Golden State comeback.
There’s also the fact that Popovich’s team was the one that employed Bruce Bowen — the player for whom this foul was put in place. The Spurs retired Bowen’s No. 12 jersey for being a key part of three championship teams as a stellar defensive player and irritant. Popovich is now upset about the situation happening in reverse.
And while there’s little doubt Pachulia was reckless in his actions Sunday, it’s also hard to see how a 7-foot center who isn’t known for being all that agile to begin with would have the wherewithal to perfectly position his foot to have Leonard land on it. Just as Leonard’s teammate, David Lee, didn’t mean to get his feet tangled up with Leonard while sitting on the bench moments earlier, when Leonard initially aggravated the ankle sprain.
This was essentially Pachulia’s defense when he was asked about Popovich’s comments following the team’s practice in Oakland, saying he sympathizes with how the Spurs feel but that there was no ill intent on his part on the play.
“No, not really, it doesn’t bother me,” Pachulia said of how Popovich characterized him. “Because I want to say the last time and that’s it, that I did whatever I had to do? That was the right defense from my side to challenge the shot. I wish he hadn’t landed on my foot, and honestly I had no idea he had landed on my foot until I turned back and he was already on the ground.
“I was trying to figure out what happened. Honestly, I didn’t know. So I really feel bad for the guy. I wish it didn’t happen and it had a different result, basically. But it’s a game and there are some things that you can’t control. I have a lot of respect for Kawhi. I think he’s one of the best players in this league. We wish him all the best to get healthy.
“But, again, meanwhile we’re going to move on. This is the game of basketball. Lot of crazy stuff happens on the court, unfortunately. It’s happened to me as well, and once you play this kind of physical game, intense game, things happen.
“My approach to this game for 14 years that I’ve been in the league is to play hard and give my 100 percent, whatever I have. So I don’t agree with the calls that I’m a dirty player. I’m not a dirty player. I just love this game, and I play hard. It’s how I was taught since Day One, honestly. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Not to be outdone in all of this, Warriors interim coach Mike Brown — whose media availability came a couple hours after Popovich’s — sat down with the press bearing his own grievances about plays the Spurs made in a similar fashion, plays he and the Warriors deemed hostile.
“You know, he’s just protecting his guys,” Brown said of Popovich, whom he worked under as an assistant earlier in his career. “Obviously, there was a chain of events that happened. Right before that, Kawhi stepped on David Lee’s foot and tweaked his ankle. Then that play happened.
“Then at the 7:23 mark, a couple plays or a play later, Steph shot the ball and LaMarcus Aldridge went to contest, and he went underneath Steph, and Steph avoided landing on his ankle by falling to the ground. I even asked two of the three officials. I said, ‘Hey, that’s the same call that you just called on Zaza,’ and both of them told me that the difference was that Kawhi landed on Zaza’s foot. Steph avoided landing on LaMarcus’s foot, and that’s why they didn’t call the foul or whatever they called on Zaza. So it’s the same play.
“Zaza is not a dirty player. LaMarcus is not a dirty player. It’s a tough basketball play, and you hate to see anybody get injured on a situation like that. But you go back and watch the film, and they’re both identical. Two guys shooting the ball. Two big guys going out to contest. They slide under the shooter a little bit. Neither one, I don’t think, on purpose. One happens to land on one’s foot and the other one doesn’t.”
Only one thing is for certain: When these two teams face off again Tuesday in Game 2 of these Western Conference finals, there will be plenty of attention paid to wherever everyone’s feet are located, for all 48 minutes.