All we know for certain is that Leonard was listed as doubtful for Game 2 on Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, and that Popovich was mad.
“A two-step, lead-with-your foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich said Monday. “It’s dangerous. It’s unsportsmanlike. It’s just not what anybody does to anybody else.”
He added: “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.”
Popovich arrived armed for his news conference with a mental dossier of Pachulia’s past offenses, which, he said, included three from Pachulia’s tenure with the Dallas Mavericks. Popovich ran through them. There was the time, he said, when Pachulia threw an elbow at the Spurs’ Patty Mills. There was the time Pachulia jerked on Leonard’s arm. (“Could have broken his arm!” Popovich said.) And there was the time Pachulia got into a skirmish with David West, back when West was with the Spurs. The two players punctuated that particular exchange by screaming at each other.
West now plays for the Warriors, and Popovich encouraged the assembled reporters to ask West about his history with Pachulia — which they later did.
“I mean, Zaza’s my teammate,” said West, who did not sound thrilled about being dragged into the conversation. “He plays hard. We’re just trying to win. That’s as far as it’s going to go.”
Pachulia said he had a great deal of respect for Popovich and for Leonard, whom he considers one of the best players in the league.
“I really feel bad for the guy,” Pachulia said, adding: “My approach to this game for 14 years that I’ve been in this 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 1, honestly. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”
For all the drama that his physical brand of basketball invites, Pachulia is an ideal center for the Warriors, who rely on him to do — and please, pardon the expression — a lot of the dirty work. During the regular season, he averaged 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in 18.1 minutes a game.
“He’s going to give you great help-side defense, and he’s going to rebound,” Mike James, a former teammate, said in a telephone interview. “You don’t need another guy who’s demanding the ball. There aren’t enough basketballs to go around on that team. So he’s perfect for them. He’s focused on getting the ball off the glass and doing all the small things they need him to do.”
The 33-year-old Pachulia, who is from the republic of Georgia, was teammates with James on the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2004-5 season. It was Pachulia’s second season in the N.B.A., and James said that they became good friends. He recalled that Pachulia would often play with shoelaces wrapped around his head because he had trouble finding a headband that fit.
When James was traded to the Houston Rockets during the season, Pachulia showed up unannounced at James’s house. Pachulia brought his mother, too.
“He just seemed really sad and disappointed that I was leaving,” James said. “That was my guy.”
Last week, as a sort of finale to a running joke about his lack of offensive production this season, Pachulia presented his teammate Klay Thompson with a framed mock-up of an article headlined, “Hell Freezes Over; Pachulia Outscores Thompson.” In Game 3 of the team’s conference semifinal series with the Utah Jazz, Pachulia had scored 7 points while Thompson, an All-Star sharpshooter, had finished with just 6.
That is Zaza: loved by teammates but generally loathed by opponents who consider him a nuisance — and a potential hazard to their health.
As for the unfortunate play involving Leonard, James said there was no way that Pachulia meant to harm him.
“He came underneath him,” James said. “But you’re not thinking in that process, ‘Let me get all the way underneath him so he sprains his ankle.’ You’re basically thinking, ‘Let me take up as much space as I can to make him as uncomfortable as possible so he misses this shot.’”
Pachulia said he had no idea that Leonard had even landed on his foot until he turned around and saw him on the court. The play had unfolded in seconds. The fallout could linger for days.