It is one of the most hated plays in basketball — a defender closing out on a jump shooter slides up close and takes away space so the shooter has nowhere comfortable to land. It’s a dirty play, and it’s led to a lot of injuries.
It’s what Zaza Pachulia did to Kawhi Leonard the second time Leonard tweaked his ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. (Leonard had missed Game 6 of the last round with a sprained ankle, and first tweaked it in this game when he turned to run upcourt after a three and his foot landed on that of the Spurs’ David Lee, who was sitting on the bench.) Pachulia was called for a foul, but there were cries online — including from myself — that this was a cheap play by Pachulia.
After the game, Leonard said he didn’t think the injury was intentional. Here’s the quote, via NBC Sports Bay Area.
“He was contesting a shot,” he said. “The shot clock was coming down and . . . I’ll have to see the play.”
Pachulia said in no uncertain terms he wasn’t trying to injure Leonard.
“That’s really stupid,” he said.
“I don’t think I should be making (any) comment,” he added. “I’m not that good to be doing intentional stuff like that. I did my part. I had to challenge the shot. It was a handoff situation and I saw that my teammate was behind the screen. I had to challenge the shot. That’s what I did. And I turned around for the rebound and that was it.
“I hate anybody going down like that with an injury. I’m an athlete, too, so I know how it feels. I wish it’s nothing serious for him because we are colleagues at the end of the day. So we’re going to move on.”
I don’t doubt that Pachulia was not trying to injure Leonard. In no way was this malicious.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t cheap.
The league has gotten away from enforcing the landing spot rule consistently — although a foul was called in this case — and, frankly, the calls for upping the punishment to a possible flagrant 1 are justified. This is a dangerous play. Anyone who has played the game at any level and a defender take away their landing spot knows the helplessness of the feeling when you are coming down.
Leonard’s ankle may have been prone to a re-injury because of the previous tweaks of it (once an ankle is sprained it’s much easier to re-sprain it), and Pachulia did not intend to injure him, but this play changed the course of Game 1 and potentially the series. And it’s the kind of play the league needs to try and eliminate.