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Zaza Pachulia's play on Kawhi Leonard was reckless, whether he meant it or not

This is a play that has been happening in the league for a long time.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a sickening sadness that sets in when watching Kawhi Leonard land on Zaza Pachulia’s foot and then clutch his left ankle. All the jokes about his likeness to a robot and his inability to show emotion goes away when he lets out quite a human scream and puts his head between his legs while grabbing his feet.

We’ve seen Leonard walk off the court with help, as he did when he first injured his ankle against the Rockets. He’s even limped off, like he did earlier in the game when he first turned the ankle by stepping on a teammate’s leg. That time, he fell, grabbed his head in pain, and, yet, still mustered the inhuman effort to get back on defense. But after the incident with Pachulia, he couldn’t even stand on his own.

What Pachulia did was challenge the shot. That’s fair. But what was unfair and dangerous was that he keps sliding under him when Leonard was already in the air, and even when he was coming down. He didn’t let the shooter come down cleanly, which led to the injury.

It’s a move popularized by former Spurs player Bruce Bowen, who admitted that the purpose of it was to make the shooter roll his ankle.

A few years ago, Dahntay Jones did the same thing to Kobe Bryant when the Lakers played the Atlanta Hawks. Kobe was shooting a fadeaway, potentially game-winning, jumper from the right and Jones slide under him. Kobe landed on Jones’ foot and suffered a severely sprained ankle because of it.

Kobe later lashed out on Twitter, saying: “You just can't go underneath shooters man, that's a dangerous play." When asked if he thought the play was intentionally dirty, Kobe refused to label it as such. Instead, he said that defenders need to be conscious of how dangerous it is and that referees need to protect the shooters:

"I'm always conscious of it. When I go to contest shots I'm always very conscious about making sure I don't walk underneath them. It's just a very, very dangerous play. Especially if I'm fading away, there's no rhyme or reason why I should come down anywhere near somebody's foot.” - Kobe Bryant

Kobe’s view on the issue is one shared by almost everyone else. Even Golden State Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser said the same thing about protecting Stephen Curry from that type of dangerous defense:

Unless the defender is Bowen, it’s hard to prove whether the play was intentional. Though most defenders tend to avoid doing it, intention is an incredibly difficult thing to prove in sports. Mistakes happen, and things happen that can be made to look like mistakes. It’s the grayest of areas. Whether Pachulia wanted to injure Leonard can be debated forever, though it certainly doesn’t look good in Pachulia’s favor due to his reputation.

On the other hand, it’s never good to condemn someone for something that could have been a misstep, regardless of the history. If Pachulia did it purposely, then it’s just an evil thing to do. If he didn’t mean it, it’s stupid. But the point is that intention does not matter. Just like Flagrant 1 fouls, what the defender intended to do is besides the point. What is important is that the play is perilous.

What matters is that Pachulia had a leg in Leonard missing the rest of the game. It was his awkward defense that left one of the best players in the league hunched over on the floor, unable to even put weight on his ankle.

It was no surprise that after Leonard went out, the game tilted heavily in Golden State’s favor. The Spurs had led by 25 points while Leonard was active. Immediately after he departed, the Warriors went on their patented third-quarter run that saw a double-digit lead wiped away in the blink of an eye.

They seemed to get baskets on every possession while San Antonio struggled to generate any coherent offense without their best player on the court. Once Leonard was out, the Spurs were doing nothing more than staving off the inevitable.

Being a great player doesn’t mean an exemption from injury. Curry himself had suffered bizarre injuries in the previous playoffs. These things happen, and they’re even more likely to if, like Leonard, the player is already hurt. Leonard was playing a risky game in participating in a high-level competition while nursing such a serious ailment.

He could have done his own ankle in by himself, like he did when he tripped over his teammate’s leg. That would have been classified as unlucky. It’s almost impossible, beyond telling the players on the bench to be attentive to stop freak accidents like that.

But that’s different from Pachulia’s defense. It’s well-known how dangerous those types of plays are. The defenders have been warned against it, and the shooters have repeatedly called for protection against it.

Ignorance or a lack of intent can be valid, but still fail to serve as a good excuse for the damage. Pachulia should know better not to put himself and Leonard in such a dangerous position.

A game that was seemingly won by the Spurs was ultimately lost because of Leonard’s injury. And now a series that could have been one of the best in this year’s playoffs has been put in jeopardy because of a situation that could have been avoided.

Dirty or not, that one play has brought an unnecessary dark cloud to the playoffs.