The case for Zaza Pachulia being a dirty player continues to mount, his latest incident involving Russell Westbrook again thrusting him into headlines for the wrong reasons.
Westbrook accused Pachulia of intentionally trying to injure him after the big man landed on his leg in the third quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ 112-80 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.
The play saw Westbrook drive to the basket and put up a runner over Nick Young, which caromed off the rim. As Westbrook and Young both leaped for the rebound, with Pachulia standing behind the action, their legs got tangled to force the pair to hit the floor. Pachulia then fell into Westbrook’s knees before leaping up and rejoining the offence.
This could've ended badly... pic.twitter.com/PFl7P0250A— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 25, 2018
Westbrook didn’t mince words when asked about the situation after the game.
“What did it look like?” Westbrook said. “Anybody touch him? …Don’t ask me dumb questions, man. Obviously, it was intentional. So don’t ask me if it was intentional. Nobody touched him, he fell on my leg, tried to hurt me. But hey, that’s how it goes.”
Westbrook on Pachulia falling into his leg: “Don’t ask me a dumb question. Obviously it was intentional.” pic.twitter.com/9sKpS2TgnH— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) February 25, 2018
When told of the accusation by ESPN, Pachulia responded: “No comment. That’s childish. Come on. I’m not responding to that.”
It’s impossible to know for sure if there was intent behind Pachulia’s fall, but the play certainly looked dirty.
Pachulia appears to just be standing by the Westbrook and Young pile before falling over on his own volition. There were no other bodies in the vicinity and any contact between Pachulia, Young and Westbrook seems minimal.
However, it’s difficult to see from the baseline camera but the broadcast angle shows Young’s right foot hooking Pachulia’s left leg, which could have thrown off the centre’s balance and sent him tumbling. It gives Pachulia a little bit of plausible deniability, but doesn’t explain why he falls so directly into Westbrook’s knees instead of trying to avoid contact.
I swear if Nick Young didn’t wear all-yellow shoes, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. pic.twitter.com/1LdeDUGMCr— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) February 25, 2018
It’s fair to think Pachulia wasn’t planning to dive at Westbrook, but saw an opportunity to make him feel it as he was going down.
His reputation does him no favours and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered up an analogy after Pachulia slid under Kawhi Leonard on a jump shot in last year’s Western Conference Finals, injuring his ankle and taking him out for the rest of the playoffs.
“Who gives a damn what his intent was?” Popovich said after Game 1. “Have you ever heard of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you’re texting and you end up killing somebody, but may have not intended to do that. All I care is what I saw. All I care about is what happened. And the history there exasperates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry.”
Pachulia’s fall on Saturday also caught the attention of Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving, who offered up his opinion on Instagram by commenting: “The league has to take a look at this, man. This s*** is ridiculous.”
Whether or not Pachulia is intentionally trying to hurt players, the perception around the league appears to be that he is.
This isn’t an isolated incident or something we haven’t seen before, so it’s getting harder to ignore how much of a danger Pachulia poses on the court.
Do a quick search of ‘Thibodeau’ on Twitter and you’ll see there’s no shortage of people asking for him to be fired and putting the Butler injury, suffered in the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ 120-102 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday, squarely on his shoulders.
Butler wasn’t able to put any weight on his right leg as he was helped to the locker room and although x-rays on his knee returned negative, according to Yahoo! Sports, an MRI is scheduled for Saturday to know the severity of the injury.
If Butler was coached by anyone else, the outcry wouldn’t be nearly the same, but because Thibodeau has a history of running his stars into the ground – Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah all deteriorated under his helm – the Butler injury seems like a continuation of a theme.
Although it’s hard to ignore the pattern, it’s also impossible to discern just how much blame Thibodeau deserves. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle – the heavy minutes load Thibodeau places on his best players makes them more susceptible to injury, but many of these injuries have been freak occurrences, down to bad luck.
Butler’s case looks particularly bad for Thibodeau because the swingman both led the league in minutes per game coming into Friday’s action (37.3) and just sat out the All-Star Game for, according to him, additional rest.
But Butler ranked in the top five in the league in average minutes over the previous four seasons – two with Thibodeau and two with Fred Hoiberg – and played at least 65 games each year, so it’s not as if being a workhorse is new for him.
Still, the cumulative effect of all those minutes likely adds up and even if Butler’s just 28 and in the prime of his career, it’s fair to wonder why Thibodeau wasn’t restricting his minutes more this season.
If Gregg Popovich, who is widely considered the best coach in the game at the moment, can have consistent success while resting his players – occasionally sitting them out completely – why wouldn’t someone like Thibodeau choose to follow suit?
It’s 2018 and even though injury prevention is a largely uncharted field, no one can argue that rest is beneficial. That said, calling for Thibodeau’s head after any of his players go down seems reductive.
It’s a testament to the Spurs’ consistency and resiliency that Leonard’s quad injury, which has kept him out for all but nine games this season, had mostly gone under the radar as the team churned out wins to currently sit third in the Western Conference.
The predicament, however, has reached the point where it can’t be ignored any further as there appears to be a definite rift between Leonard and the organisation.
Though the general consensus seemed to be that Leonard would return at some point by the playoffs, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich delivered a sobering word on Wednesday, saying he would be “surprised if [Leonard] returns this season”.
Not long after, an ESPN report dropped that revealed Leonard has been medically cleared to return, but has chosen to remain sidelined after consulting with a specialist to get a second opinion on his injury.
For Leonard's return, the decision rests with his comfort level managing the discomfort with the right quad. He's been long cleared to return -- the final decision still remains with him. https://t.co/v90lARzjcj— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 22, 2018
The handling of the injury and the timetable for a potential return have caused the relationship between Leonard and the team to deteriorate, according to the report.
In the short term, it looks like San Antonio are planning to be without Leonard for the stretch run and postseason, which significantly hinders their ceiling in the playoffs.
They’ve managed a 35-24 record so far, but their system and plug-and-play style is more of a failsafe during the grind of the regular season. Talent almost always wins out in the playoffs and for as great of a coach as Popovich Is, not having arguably a top-five player in the league available for the postseason is bound to spell doom for the Spurs, whether it’s in the first or second round.
That means this year has practically been a waste for San Antonio, at least when it comes to contending. They’ve continued to develop their young guys, but Rudy Gay was signed and Paul Gasol was brought back for the team to make a significant run, especially after they looked like a serious threat to Golden State before Leonard’s injury in last year’s Western Conference Finals.
As much as a lost season will sting, the real concern for the Spurs should now be on the summer of 2019, when Leonard can hit free agency.
It would have been crazy as recently as last season to imagine Leonard playing anywhere but San Antonio for the foreseeable future, but that no longer looks anything close to a certainty. As wonderful as it sounds for Leonard to be the next Tim Duncan for the franchise, it doesn’t seem like there’s that same unwavering loyalty and this whole injury fiasco has thrown a wrench into the works.
The good news for San Antonio is they have a full year next season, presumably with Leonard at full strength, to heal any wounds and make a push that convinces Leonard to stick around.
But it also wouldn’t be a total surprise if the Spurs, who are as forward-thinking as any franchise in the league, pursue trades for Leonard this summer or ahead of next season’s trade deadline to get something of value for him before he can walk away and leave them empty-handed.
Because it’s San Antonio, we assume they’ll work things out and find a way to keep the face of their franchise.
As this mess has proved though, the Spurs aren’t completely impervious.