The Golden State Warriors finished off their 4-4-4 last night, sweeping the San Antonio Spurs after having swept away the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trailblazers. The initially interesting series turned into a laugher after Zaza Pachulia, a big man that Golden State picked up for cheap in the off-season, intentionally injured Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio’s best player, and the only player capable of keeping an otherwise aging Spurs team competitive.
That play was as ugly a thing as it is possible to imagine:
Leonard, who had unexpectedly lead San Antonio to what was then a 21-point lead in the series’s first game, went up for a jumper. Pachulia slid over to contest the shot and then took one final bunny hop, sliding his left foot underneath the returning-to-earth Leonard. As was Pachulia’s intention, Leonard landed on that left foot, badly twisting an already injured ankle. Leonard ended up missing the rest of the series, and whatever competitiveness had potentially existed evaporated. Onward march the Warriors.
The lingering question is one of Pachulia’s intent, and the defenses of him accounted for this, essentially arguing that the step-under simply that it was an unfortunate accident resulting in a terrible outcome. There were those disinterested in issues of intent though. Gregg Popovich famously described Pachulia’s play in the following way, “Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter?” Popovich was focused on the outcome, obviously, as he was left helplessly watching his team’s only chance writhing around on the floor.
Here’s the thing about though: Pachulia intentionally injured Leonard. There’s simply no denying this. Watch the above video again. The stepback is unmistakeable. That Pachulia has a very long history of doing precisely these sorts of things should also be taken into account. Hell, Pachulia has a history of intentionally trying to injure Kawhi Leonard.
Pachulia has inexplicably asked for sympathy in all of this, claiming that fans have threatened his family after he intentionally injured Leonard. (It should go without saying that fans should not do this sort of thing, but it should also go without saying that intentionally injuring another team’s best player does tend to result in angry fanbases.)
In a juster world, and regardless of intent, San Antonio would have exacted a price from Golden State for that team’s blatant headhunting. Golden State’s best players would have been hit repeatedly, cheaply or otherwise, until one of them was knocked out for a game, or a series, or the rest of the Finals. That would have been the fair outcome. The worst that the Warriors’ endured was Dewayne Dedmon appearing to go into Steph Curry’s knee:
Golden State’s fans don’t want to be seen as cheering for a dirty team. Few fans do – although these sorts of people are out there, and they wear their team’s dirty play like a badge of honor – and so they were ecstatic to find the Dedmon video embedded above. It was their absolution and it wasn’t hard to find Warriors fans using the Dedmon video as an implied justification for what Pachulia had done. “See, SEE!” these fans screamed. “The Spurs are JUST as dirty!” This was a narrative that the Warriors themselves were also happy to glom onto. Here’s Steph Curry calling the Dedmon’s play dirty.
Let’s ignore that to see this Dedmon’s play in its very worst form requires watching it in super-slow motion. Let’s also ignore that the play being referenced here didn’t knock Steph Curry out for the playoffs, the Western Conference Finals, or even the game. Hell, let’s even ignore that Dedmon’s alleged targeting didn’t go after one of Curry’s known weaknesses: his ankles. Let’s take a super-slow motion video at face value, and also accept Curry’s explanation of it, and also ignore that it wasn’t targeted toward one of Curry’s weaknesses. What then?
Hold onto that answer, because it is also worth noting that Golden State fans also pointed to Bruce Bowen, a long-time Spur known for his dirty play. He was the player who famously perfected the art of the “closeout,” the nice name for stepping underneath a landing player, risking that player’s health. The Spurs defended Bowen’s play after all; how could they possibly object to Pachulia’s?
In response to one of the dirtiest plays in the NBA’s recent history, we have Golden State (both the team and its fans) doing everything imaginable to deflect attention away from the Pachulia’s play. “But he didn’t mean to do it!” and “But Pachulia’s family was threatened!” and “But Dedmon went after our guy!” and “But Popovich previously defended his own player!” are all great attempts at deflection, but none deal substantively with the heart of the matter: that Golden State targeted their opponent’s best-player and, upon achieving their desired outcome (his injury), then put their hands up as if to say, “But we’re innocent!”
They’re not innocent though. They’re a team that played very dirty to win, and no matter the Finals outcome, that should never be forgotten. What was once a team that won with the beauty of its basketball is now a team that wins playing the dirtiest game imaginable, all while having the outright audacity to demand that everybody look at anything else instead.