When the stakes are high and the moments to make an impact are so scarce, one play can define an NBA playoff series. Especially when it's the kind of play that takes out the opposing team's best player.
That's what happened in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Warriors and the Spurs when Golden State's Zaza Pachulia contested Kawhi Leonard's jumper and extended his feet into the Kawhi's landing zone. The Spurs star landed on Pachulia, and re-injured his already ailing ankle.
We can tire ourselves out with body language analysis and it won't change the fact that nobody but Zaza will ever really know whether the move was intentional, but the imperative fact is this: There isn't an NBA player in the world who doesn't know how reckless the play is. There's a reason its namesake is Bruce Bowen, whose claim to fame is being the dirtiest player of all time.
An irate Gregg Popovich put it best the next morning.
"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 … A two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate. It's dangerous, it's unsportsmanlike. It's just not what anybody does to anybody else. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action."
Leonard limped off the court with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, and the Spurs' 25-point lead evaporated at the hands of an 18-0 run. The Warriors eventually eked out the victory, 113-111. Leonard has officially been ruled out for Game 2, and just as it did in Game 1, his absence has massive implications.
In the playoffs, Leonard has scored 27.7 points, grabbed 7.8 rebounds and dished out 4.6 assists per game, having absorbed Tony Parker's playmaking duties. When he is on the floor, the Spurs score 10.9 points per 100 possessions, the best net rating out of the starters. And, of course, the perennial Defensive Player of the Year was primed to be the de facto Kevin Durant stopper in crunch-time.
In truth, the Spurs were outmatched against the Warriors even prior to Leonard's injury. San Antonio was merely capable of capitalizing on a razor-thin window of opportunity, one that would require near-perfection: winning the Leonard-Durant matchup, the interior matchup, the second-unit matchup, taking care of the basketball, and praying that Curry and Klay Thompson wouldn't go on one too many unconscious shooting sprees. The Spurs were doing that in Game 1, winning the battle on the boards, and taking advantage of the Dubs' reckless passing. But who's to say that would have continued throughout that series?
Besides, goading Curry and Durant into playing one-on-one is only a profitable play when you've got Leonard around on defense. Danny Green and Jonathon Simmons complete one of the most dangerous perimeter defense trifectas, sure, but switching out Leonard for Manu Ginobili will have some serious consequences, the implications of which may be a strategy change for San Antonio.
The Spurs might want to re-evaluate their switching scheme and put the onus on Green and Simmons, who often started possessions on Draymond Green, to get around screens. This is where San Antonio may find hope.
With Leonard out, Simmons' minutes are bound to increase, as is his toll on defense. The whirling sophomore might play like he's walking backward into layups, but his path to the NBA was no fluke. In 2013, a D-League tryout landed him on the Austin Spurs, and two years later, he found himself on an NBA team, a spot player in Popovich's rotation.
Simmons is a former D-Leaguer, yes, and he's already 27 years old. But he's new to the league and boasts an incredible trajectory. It's time to see who he can be.
These are marginal moves, especially for a team that had its eye on the NBA Finals. But the reality is that the Spurs are severely undermanned, and facing a juggernaut. Barring an incredible performance from LaMarcus Aldridge (haha), the Spurs' fate was likely sealed the moment Leonard landed on Pachulia's foot, calmly sank two free throws and hobbled toward the locker room.