The Warriors May Not Be Ruining Basketball, but Zaza Pachulia Just Ruined a Good Series
Sunday afternoon’s game was more than a “what-if” moment
Like many other basketball fans, I watched a sizable portion of the Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs series opener on Sunday. I saw the Spurs race out to a monumental lead, and I saw the Warriors gradually pull thesmselves back into the fight. And most importantly, I saw the Spurs’ best player, Kawhi Leonard, go down with an injury after Zaza Pachuila chased him out on the perimeter.
In a series with a talent disparity this big, the Warriors were always favorites. And, truth be told, they would be favorites even if the Spurs had held on win, and probably even if Leonard didn’t get hurt. As an outsider though, it’s difficult for me to believe that the Warriors would have won on Sunday if Leonard had played the whole game. The margin was slim enough as it is, and Leonard’s presence gives San Antonio a boost that works both offensively and defensively.
So my ultimate conclusion is this: Pachulia may not have swung the series, but he almost definitely swung one game. And by injuring the best player on the floor (at that point in the game), he took the Western Conference Finals from “interesting series” to “Warriors win easily once again.” In essence, he robbed us all of a fun matchup.
Of course, any post on Leonard’s injury needs to start with head coach Gregg Popovich’s rant:
Listening to Zach Lowe’s most recent podcast today though, I was struck by some of the specific wording that Popovich used. Lowe pointed out that Popovich said, essentially, that “it’s pretty cool when you can play that well against the Warriors” (to paraphrase). This, of course, is the obvious fact that Golden State will be massive favorites against anyone in the league. For a team to have any chance against them, even a team like the Spurs, everything has to go right. And for most of the game Sunday, it did.
But what struck me most about Lowe’s podcast was what he and guest Doris Burke concluded next. The two agreed, essentially, that Popovich knew the series was over once Leonard went down. Not over in the sense that the Spurs would stop trying, or concede, or anything like that, but over in the sense that San Antonio has no real chance now. The Spurs had everything going right for almost a full game, and it all disappeared in an instant.
I agree with Popovich’s unspoken sentiment that Lowe and Burke teased out. To beat the Warriors four times out of seven, everything has to go right. Losing game one is pivotal, since now the number dwindles to four out of six games. But after a disastrous second game on Tuesday, that number is now down to four out of five. Even if three of these five hypothetical games are in San Antonio, that’s too tall a task for nearly any team. Draymond Green isn’t going to bail the Spurs out by attacking someone’s crotch this time (at least I think).
I agree with the majority consensus that Pachulia was playing irresponsibly, and that the true intent of the situation is secondary to his recklessness. But I don’t need to belabor that point. Smarter people than I have said it at length, and I can tell from people’s reactions that I’m not the only semi-neutral observer who is upset that Leonard got hurt.
And ultimately, Pachulia probably didn’t swing the series. With Leonard, the Spurs probably split the first two of four games, and probably take the series to six (maybe seven) games after that. I expect that Leonard will probably play in San Antonio for the next two, which I still expect the teams to split. But after that, game five is probably the last call for this Spurs team.
And that’s a shame, because Pop was right. It is pretty cool to play the Warriors that well. I’ve watched several games over the past year when my Atlanta Hawks took the Warriors to the brink, and then lost. And those moments where I knew that my team had a chance to knock Golden State off were a lot of fun. Not quite as fun as when Atlanta’s backups beat the Cavaliers on the road, but still entertaining, captivating basketball. And it’s this sense of suspense that Pachulia killed. Yes, the Warriors were probably always going to win. But now? Now, we’re just waiting for the inevitable.