OAKLAND, Calif. – Gregg Popovich was in a rage Monday and came equipped with receipts while making an unusual character assassination of a player whom he believed ruined the San Antonio Spurs’ chances of upsetting the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. No amount of anger and no well-crafted argument denouncing Zaza Pachulia could change what was at the root of the rant: Kawhi Leonard’s sprained left ankle won’t heal in time for him to return for Game 2 on Tuesday and his status for the rest of a series in which the Spurs are a more extreme underdog remains in doubt.
Pachulia was collateral damage for Popovich’s pain, the easy target of his frustrations after the Warriors’ big man slid under the Spurs’ best player in the second half of Sunday’s Game 1, contributing to an injury that helped San Antonio’s 23-point lead evaporate into a 113-111 defeat. Just because Pachulia has had a few questionable moments in his career, and has tangled with Leonard in the past, doesn’t mean that he sought to injure him while closing out on a jumper. Intent doesn’t necessarily absolve Pachulia from the offense of failing to give a shooter the necessary room to land. But the only reason that play has become so controversial is because Leonard was unable to finish the game and remains hobbled.
None of that is fair, for Leonard, for the Spurs, or even the Warriors, who haven’t been able to get the best from any opponent this postseason. Portland didn’t have Jusuf Nurkic available for every game in the first round. Utah was without George Hill for the final two games of the second round. Both players were starters in pivotal roles for their respective teams, but Leonard is an MVP candidate who represents so much more for the Spurs’ present and future. That’s why Popovich has to handle Leonard delicately going forward and can’t risk choosing the short-term gain of his presence over the long-term impact of his career with the franchise.
“All I care about is Kawhi’s not there,” Popovich said. “You know, having your horses is important at this point in the deal. … Who gives a damn about what [Pachulia’s] intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you’re texting and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that. All I care about is what I saw. All I care about is what happened and the history there exacerbates the whole situation and makes me very, very angry.”
While it’s easy to blame Leonard’s injury on a clumsy, “two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout,” that doesn’t nullify how the Spurs’ best player was already playing – quite well, too – on a damaged wheel. Leonard hurt his ankle in the previous series against Houston while stepping on James Harden’s foot and missed the end of Game 5 and the entirety of Game 6. He also aggravated the same ankle stepping on teammate David Lee’s foot a few possessions before Pachulia made that fateful closeout.
Through a seemingly impenetrable mask, Leonard has always been able to suppress his emotions but he was unable to hide his obvious agony after stumbling over Lee. Leonard continued to plug along but considering how the game concluded, Popovich and his staff had to wonder, even briefly, if they made the right decision in not immediately giving their star a breather with a comfortable lead.
The Spurs have much to ponder going forward, even though the MRI results Monday revealed no structural damage in Leonard’s left ankle. During the anti-Pachulia tirade, Popovich let slip a little-known nugget about the team’s strategy in keeping Tim Duncan out of the playoffs for their first title defense in 2000, when the Spurs suffered a first-round sweep against the Phoenix Suns.
Duncan “could have played in that playoff,” Popovich said. “I sat him because he had a great future ahead of him.”
Leonard disputed the notion that Pachulia hurt him on purpose, committing to a no-excuse, move-on-to-the-next-play approach to the game. But Popovich woke up Monday ready to come to Leonard’s defense – and to possibly rally his shaken players, who no doubt understand the immense challenge of beating the two-time defending Western Conference champions without Leonard and veteran point guard Tony Parker.
Popovich isn’t “a happy camper” because he believed, for the first time since he won his last championship in 2014, that the Spurs were actually ready for the Warriors. And Leonard, the former Finals MVP whom he has been grooming to serve as the face of the franchise once Duncan retired, had fully embraced his responsibilities as a team leader, had stopped deferring to his Hall of Fame teammates and wanted to assert his authority on the opposition. Leonard led a clinic in his 24 minutes of Game 1, picking apart the Warriors’ defense, slicing down the lane for Statue of Liberty dunks, and setting up his teammates with open looks along the way. The Spurs appeared destined to go home to San Antonio with at least one win, but now they can only hope that they will have a remotely effective Leonard.
Over the past few years, Popovich has come to admire what the Warriors have built, taking a little pride in knowing the influence that he had on a former player who has become a good friend in coach Steve Kerr. Popovich suggested that Kerr hire Mike Brown last summer, and Brown, another branch off Popovich’s coaching tree, has taken over and led the Warriors to their past seven wins. But that respect only served as more motivation for Popovich to build a team that could beat them.
That competitive passion led him to dip into big-time free agency for the first time in 2015 to lure LaMarcus Aldridge, a veteran All-Star who came to San Antonio for the chance to win on a bigger scale. Aldridge proved his worth to the Spurs by scoring 34 points in a road closeout with Leonard sidelined against Houston, earning his first career trip to the conference finals. But the plan was to have that version of Aldridge paired with a healthy Leonard against the Warriors. Popovich got to see how it would work, ever so briefly, in Game 1 and to have that taken away made it impossible for him to simply have a nice dinner, some fine wine and a decent night’s rest.
“We’re playing very possibly the best team in the league. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the East. But 9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors will beat the Spurs,” Popovich said. “Well, we’ve had a pretty damn good season. We’ve played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we’re getting better, and we’re up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down, like that.”
The Warriors didn’t want to spend too much time responding to Popovich’s harsh words toward Pachulia. Pachulia reiterated that he isn’t a dirty player and said he had too much respect for Popovich and the Spurs’ organization to attack them. Draymond Green, the human quote machine, also deflected inquiries about Popovich and Pachulia by deciding to focus on Game 2. David West, one of the players Popovich mentioned who had been a victim of Pachulia’s goonish behavior last season, simply said his new teammate plays hard. Brown addressed Popovich’s comments with the team. He understood why Popovich stuck up for Leonard but wouldn’t let his players dwell on what was said.
“I’ve been called a lot of names,” Brown said with a laugh. “It’s part of this business. You’re in the public eye and people are going to have opinions. Pop has his opinion. We just move forward.”
Popovich wishes it was that easy for the Spurs to do the same. With a healthy Kawhi.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Unlikely hero sends Celtics to conference finals
• Latest arrest likely to end troubled NFL star’s career
• Adrian Wojnarowski: Magic want to talk to Cavs GM
• Is there really any reason to worry about the Cubs?