Gregg Popovich went off on Zaza Pachulia on Monday, blasting the Golden State center for his – in Pop’s words – “dangerous” and “unsportsmanlike play.”
Pachulia contested a Kawhi Leonard jumper in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday but didn’t allow a clear landing for San Antonio’s best player. Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot, left the game, didn’t return, and will likely miss Game 2 on Tuesday.
Popovich said that Pachulia “has a history” of dirty play, but does he? Was the play in question actually intentional or malicious?
“No, I didn’t think it was dirty at all,” NBA-TV analyst Sekou Smith said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I think people are giving Zaza Pachulia way too much credit. If he was a more graceful athlete, maybe he could have done something that diabolical and calculated, but Kawhi has been stepping on people’s feet left and right the last couple weeks. I thought it was disingenuous, at best, for Pop to run him down the way he did.”
Interestingly, it was Smith’s question that set Pop off.
“I didn’t even get the full question out and he’s already telling me how silly a question (it was),” Smith said. “He went crazy. But he was ready. You don’t run down a list of transgressions on a guy if you don’t show up with that on your mind. I thought it was a low-blow at Zaza because he’s not a dirty player. He plays hard, but he’s not a dirty player.”
In truth, Pachulia likely isn’t the cause of Pop’s snarl; he’s simply the object of it.
“I think (Popovich is) frustrated,” Smith said, “and I understand why he’d be frustrated. You lost Tony Parker, who’s a Hall of Fame point guard, to a torn quad. Now you got your best player and MVP candidate on the shelf potentially for the next five-and-a-half days against a Warriors team that you had on the ropes in Game 1 and couldn’t knock them out.”
Indeed, the Spurs squandered a 23-point second-half lead Sunday and lost 113-111, as the Warriors erupted for 71 second-half points. Game 2 is Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
“So if you’re Pop, you woke up unbelievably frustrated today,” Smith said. “You’ve been banging your head in the playoffs the past few years trying to get back to a championship level, and it hasn’t happened. If you look at that roster and who’s healthy right now, you would think that it’s not going to happen this time. So (there’s) a lot of frustration there, but I don’t think it was calculated in a way that Pop is trying to get something out of the officials. He’s trying to galvanize his troops and get them ready to play in a game that nobody is going to give them a shot to win.”
In the East, meanwhile, Cleveland will open the conference finals Wednesday – either at Boston or at home against Washington. It will be the Cavs’ first game in 10 days.
Is that a problem?
“I don’t have any real concerns with them coming out and playing at a high level,” Smith said. “It took Golden State some time (in the first half against San Antonio). When you go through sweeping people, you earn the right to rest. But unfortunately for you, you earn the right to accrue a little rust. If that happens and you can’t shake it off quick enough, it becomes an issue. But I’m not worried about Cleveland. A five- or six-game series for the Cavaliers in the conference finals, to me, would be a game or two longer than anybody expects.”