Kawhi Leonard does not blame Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia for the injury that will prevent the San Antonio Spurs star from playing in Game 2 — and possibly beyond — of the Western Conference finals.
Moments after Leonard tweaked his left ankle a first time during Sunday night’s game, Pachulia’s foot slid under the all-star forward while he was making a jump shot. Leonard came down on the foot and landed on the floor. Pachulia was called for a foul, and Leonard made both free throws before leaving the game for good with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter.
The Spurs were up, 78-55, when Leonard made his exit. But the Warriors rallied, going on an 18-0 run at one point, to win the game 113-111. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Monday that Leonard will not play in Game 2 of the series on Tuesday night.
Leonard said after the game that he did not suspect Pachulia of any ill intentions.
“Did he step under it? Like on purpose? No,” said Leonard, who had 26 points and eight rebounds. “He was contesting a shot.”
Pachulia said: “I just did what I was supposed to do and challenged his shot. I turned around and there was a call. I didn’t notice that he was down until I turned back, actually. So I didn’t see what happened there.”
Talking to reporters Monday, Popovich did not seem to agree with Leonard’s assessment of the controversial play, calling Pachulia’s move “a totally unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago.”
“The two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich said. “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 also said of Pachulia: “Nobody wants to do anything that would put anybody else in danger for a game or a career. This guy’s history is different.”
Speaking with reporters Monday after practice, Pachulia disagreed with Popovich’s assessment.
“My approach to this game for 14 years that I’ve been in the league is to play hard and [give] 100% of whatever I have,” Pachulia said. “So I don’t agree with the calls that I’m a dirty player. I’m not a dirty player. I love this game, and I’m playing hard. That’s what I was taught since Day One.”
Nonetheless, many folks on social media also cast Pachulia as the villain.
WAY TO GO ZAZA, YOU JUST CARRIED YOUR TEAM TO THE NBA FINALS.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 14, 2017
I think that Zaza Pachulia play on Leonard changed the whole momentum of the game for the Spurs! Dirty play that sure looked on purpose.— Stacey King (@Stacey21King) May 14, 2017
Kawhi saying that ZaZa didn't do it on purpose means nothing. Kawhi would never call someone out because he is a classy dude.— Chris Kern (@chriskern11) May 14, 2017
It was tough to find anyone on Twitter defending Pachulia. One of the few exceptions seems to be Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Warriors star Kevin Durant also had his teammate’s back after the game.
“Zaza’s not a dirty player. You’ve got to time that perfectly if you want to hurt somebody,” Durant said. “We’re not that type of team. Kawhi’s an unbelievable player. We’ve got nothing but respect for him. We wish that he gets healthy. We just tried to contest a shot. Guys are playing hard. It was an unfortunate situation, I wish it didn’t happen, but I don’t think it was intentional.”
Durant added: “You can’t listen to people on Twitter, they’re irrational.”
May 16, 6:35 a.m.: This post was updated with additional quotes from Popovich and Zaza Pachulia.
May 15, 11:10 a.m.: This post was updated with additional comments from Popovich.
May 15, 10:55 a.m.: This post was updated with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich declaring Kawhi Leonard out for Game 2.
This article was originally published May 15 at 8:10 a.m.