NBA playoff series often hinge on advantages in one or two areas of the game, which in practice means that analysis can often hinge on everyday basketball practices such as rebounding and transition defense. Somewhat surprisingly, though, early discussion of the 2017 Western Conference finals has focused on an especially dull topic of conversation — closing out on shooters.
Of course, that’s not happening because the San Antonio Spurs have struggled to challenge the Golden State Warriors’ many capable perimeter threats. Rather, it’s because plenty of people think Warriors center Zaza Pachulia meant to injure Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard when he failed to give him proper room to land on a jumper in the third quarter of Game 1. The Spurs went on to lose the 23-point lead they had built.
Head coach Gregg Popovich flat-out called Pachulia “dirty” and was criticized for defending similar plays from former Spur Bruce Bowen in the past. Bowen popped up to say Pachulia’s play was intentional, and the Warriors did their best to defend their player. Meanwhile, Leonard was ruled out for a Game 2 that turned into a Warriors blowout early, and pretty much everyone lamented that a competitive series suddenly had Golden State up 2-0.
Leonard will likely be back for Game 3, and the heel injury Pachulia sustained in Game 2 means he might not even be present Saturday to hear the boos from the AT&T Center crowd. Nevertheless, the closeout on Leonard was still a topic of conversation after Tuesday night’s Warriors win, albeit indirectly.
Instead, the Warriors wanted to talk about a play by Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge on a Kevin Durant jumper in the second quarter. Aldridge closed out Durant and took a Pachulian extra step toward his landing space, though no one was hurt. Take a look:
Durant fielded a question about the play in his post-game press conference, and his answer did not take Aldridge to task. However, it’s probably best to take his answer as about Pachulia’s play on Leonard:
KD’s answer is almost comical in the way it absolves Pachulia of any blame without mentioning him by name. The point is clear — big men sometimes look awkward on the perimeter, and that means neither Aldridge nor Pachulia deserve blame for getting in shooters’ ways. And to prove the point, Durant spoke about Aldridge as if they were engaged in a gentlemanly competition in which the losers buy beer after each game.
Yet the story didn’t stop there. The Warriors talked about Aldridge’s play in the locker room, as well:
This was a topic in locker room https://t.co/KdeQlq8DVO
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) May 17, 2017
It’s a safe bet that the Warriors were more concerned with the Spurs’ selective criticism of these plays than any error on the part of Aldridge. They don’t like that Pachulia has been called “dirty” in public and will point out illogical arguments to protect him. To them, any observable differences in degree do not change the fact that there’s no difference in kind between the two closeouts. If the Spurs are going to criticize one, they can’t knock the other.
Readers can disagree on which side of this argument is correct. (For the sake of clarity, I will note that I believe Pachulia didn’t mean to hurt Leonard, but deserves criticism for not paying much attention to opponent safety throughout his career.) But arguing for either side misses that neither the Spurs nor Warriors can ever really win this debate on the merits. The argument will be defined by which side refuses to let it rest. Eventually, one team and its fans will stop talking about it and the other will keep going.
Such discussions are never about assessing rational arguments. Everyone has a side, and they’ll defend it until it’s no longer useful.
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