Gregg Popovich says Kawhi Leonard likely out for Game 2, rips Zaza Pachulia for 'dangerous' play

ByMichael C. Wright ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spoke out angrily about Kawhi Leonard's ankle injury, saying the All-Star forward will likely miss Game 2 of the Western Conference finals and calling out Zaza Pachulia for his "dangerous" and "unsportsmanlike" play.

Sources said Leonard's MRI on Monday revealed no structural damage.

Popovich spoke to reporters Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Leonard suffered the injury and the Spurs squandered a 23-point third-quarter lead in their Game 1 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

After taking a corner jumper, Leonard took a spill near the Spurs bench after landing on the foot of Pachulia, who said he did "what I was supposed to do and challenged his shot."

Despite Leonard dismissing the notion that the injury occurred because of a dirty play by Pachulia, Popovich said Monday that the Warriors center "has a history with that kind of action."

"The two-step lead with your foot closeout is not appropriate," Popovich said. "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."

Pachulia, speaking to reporters later Monday, defended himself against the label that he's "dirty."

"I'm not a dirty player. I just love this game and I'm playing hard. That's how I've been taught from Day 1 honestly. That's what I've been doing," he said.

The NBA said Monday that Pachulia will not face any discipline and that the play will stand as called.

Popovich was asked whether he thought Pachulia intended to injure Leonard.

"This is crap," he replied. "And because [Pachulia] has got this history, it can't be, 'Oh this was inadvertent, he didn't have intent.'

"Who gives a damn what his intent was? Have you ever heard of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you're texting and you end up killing somebody, but may have not intended to do that. All I care 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."

Leonard's teammates, meanwhile, took on a more muted tone, saying Popovich "covered how we feel as a group for the most part," according to shooting guard Danny Green.

"We're not happy," Green added. "We just knew what we had in front of us, the opportunity. We still have that. I still believe in our guys. Last night was not just a physical beating, but an emotional and mentally draining game for us to start.

"Our best player is down. We don't know where he is at today [physically]. We still have a chance at something special. We felt with him, we had really good chances. Nobody is happy about it."

Pachulia, when informed of Popovich's comments, said Monday that he has "a lot of respect" for the longtime coach.

"[The criticism] doesn't bother me," Pachulia said. "I did whatever I had to do. That was the right defense from my side. I had to challenge the shot. I wish he didn't land on my foot and honestly and I had no idea he landed on it until I turned back and he was already on the ground."

In discussing Pachulia's history of questionable play, Popovich encouraged reporters to speak with the Warriors forward David West, who spent last season with the Spurs. During West's time with San Antonio, he mixed it up with Pachulia while he was a member of the Dallas Mavericks.

Reporters asked West later Monday about Pachulia, but the veteran forward said his teammate was just "playing hard."

One of the league's premier three-and-D players, Green has experienced plenty of situations in which he closed out on shooters, but he called Pachulia's actions something he has "never done before."

"I've guarded jump-shooters," Green said. "Obviously, it was a called foul. At the time, they were arguing it wasn't a foul. I think it's pretty clear that it was a foul. We have different techniques for guarding shooters."

Popovich acknowledged that the Spurs will have a more difficult time defeating the top-seeded Warriors without Leonard, who had 26 points before leaving Sunday's game. The Warriors outscored the Spurs 58-33 after Leonard exited with 7 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Popovich didn't definitively say at first whether Leonard would miss Game 2, but the club's history points to San Antonio sitting him. When Leonard originally suffered the ankle injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, a source explained the club's philosophy for dealing with injuries, which dates all the way back to the early Tim Duncan years.

The season after San Antonio's first championship, Duncan, on Apr. 11, 2000, tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in Game No. 78, forcing him to miss the final four games. As the Spurs prepped for the postseason, Duncan wanted to play, but Popovich shut him down for the playoffs, and the Spurs lost that series 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns.

The source said the Duncan situation started Popovich's philosophy of the team always striving to "do what's best for the player" when dealing with injuries, even if it means faltering in the playoffs. In this case, if Leonard misses Game 2 on Tuesday, he'll have extra time to rest before the teams clash again Saturday in San Antonio.

Popovich even acknowledged "that's why we sat him in the Houston series," adding that Leonard's long-term future also comes into play.

"We did the same thing with Tim Duncan earlier in his career in the Phoenix series," Popovich said. "He could have played in that playoff, and I sat him because he had a great future ahead of him. We'll see. We'll see what the MRI says, but obviously, he won't play tomorrow."

That severely damages San Antonio's prospects for advancing to the NBA Finals, as the club is already without point guardTony Parker, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in Game 2 of the conference semis.

"We've had a pretty damn good season," Popovich said. "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.

"And you want to know how our chances are less? And you want to know how we feel? That's how we feel."

Still, the Spurs believe they can find a way to triumph in this Western Conference finals series in which the club, even at full strength, entered as underdogs.

In Leonard's absence, second-year forward Jonathon Simmons expects to start. When the Spurs held out Leonard in Game 5 against Houston, Simmons joined the starting lineup and forced Rockets All-StarJames Harden into four turnovers over the final six minutes of San Antonio's series-ending victory, in addition to contributing 18 points and four assists.

Simmons said the plan now is to "channel our focus to Game 2," while point guard Patty Mills added San Antonio can still accomplish its goals without the contributions of Leonard and Parker.

"All we can control is going out Game 2, playing hard and playing smart to get back on track. We have a great opportunity," Mills said. "It's obviously a big loss, but I think the belief still within the group is that no matter who's on the floor, we've still got a great opportunity here. And we all believe no matter who is on the court, we can go and get this done."

Green called this year's playoffs "a rollercoaster" for the Spurs.

"A lot of different emotional things going on," he said. "The playoffs for us have been rough. Nobody is going to feel bad for us. No Tony, no Kawhi as of right now. Yesterday, it felt we had been to hell and back in just three hours. We'll figure it out."

ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.

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