More than three years ago, on May 14, 2017, the Warriors took their home court at Oracle Arena in Oakland, hoping to start off the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs with a win, after sweeping the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs.
But the Spurs came out hot, led by star Kawhi Leonard, dropping the Warriors into a 25-point deficit early on. Things changed quickly, however, when Zaza Pachulia contested one of Leonard's shots, sliding into his landing space. Leonard landed awkwardly on Pachulia's foot, aggravating a sprained ankle that he had sustained earlier in the playoffs and tweaked earlier in the night.
The Warriors stormed back with an 18-0 run after Leonard departed, leading to a Dubs win and an eventual series sweep.
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The incident however became the focal point after the game, with many fans, media members and even fellow players and coaches furiously accusing Pachulia of purposely injuring Leonard.
Here are excerpts from the latest Runnin' Plays podcast with Pachulia, where he recalls the incident:
Golden State Warriors
Grant Liffmann: "I thought about this the other day, because they spoke about Danny Green when he missed the shot that could have won it for the [Los Angeles] Lakers, he said his family got death threats from that ... Any time now that a shooter shoots a ball, and a player comes too close to their "landing spot," they say the "Kawhi Leonard-Zaza Pachulia situation." Every time. Without fail. They always mention the "Zaza Rule." But if I remember correctly, you also experienced a lot of those crazy people, that took it to a level that was not OK. Can you tell the fans about that experience about what that's like, and just hearing that being said until this day?
Zaza Pachulia: "Thanks for bringing it up. Obviously I was watching the games on TV as well, like you were and millions of people were. And I heard it. I also heard Danny's comments after the game. And I felt it because I just went through with my family that experience, exactly the same thing, after the Spurs series, after the incident. And let's be honest Grant, it's 2020, you know, social media and internet, we have a lot of data, we have clips from every game, it's accessible. So let's come up with how many times that situation happened, prior to that, after that, a lot. Especially now, with how many 3s are taken."
"Basically every 3-point shot is challenged. For that reason, there is always a possibility for that awkward landing to happen. Like I said, it happened before so many times and it happened after my incident, so many times. I think we should talk about 'Why that exact moment?' was such a huge deal. Why everybody was talking about it."
"Of course I have my opinions. Nobody likes the favorite team, and in that series, San Antonio was the underdog. And it was Game 1, they were up by 20-plus, and [Kevin Durant] wasn't playing good. Kawhi was known with his presence, the amazing hands he has, how great of a defender he is, and he had a huge impact into shutting down KD in the first half. He was helping the team that was up by 20. So, of course there is the unanswered question of 'What if that moment didn't happen?' The result could have been different. Maybe we would've seen the Spurs-Cavs in the Finals. I still believe that even though if that incident didn't happen, and we lost Game 1, I still believe 100 percent that we would still come back and win that series. Maybe 4-1, maybe 4-2 or 4-3, who cares? We would have won. I believe we would have won the championship again that year. But this is a question that we would not have to answer."
"There was also one moment that affected my situation was, if you looked at both the Eastern and Western Conference, media had nothing to talk about. Cleveland was sweeping everybody the first three rounds, we were sweeping everybody first three rounds, and we ended up finishing that year in the playoffs 16-1. So there was no need to talk about adjustments, or the series to get interesting. There was nothing to talk about. We were dominating everybody. So I guess that was something the media found 'OK, let's talk about this, let's make it interesting, let's sell the news.' We all know what kind of world we are living in Grant, there are so many media outlets, they don't care if it's true or not true, or get more information. It's been selling the information, it's about making people click on it, that's what drives a lot of media outlets. I think I got caught up in that situation."
"Whatever happened Grant, honestly, I really felt, I really felt bad. I'm an athlete too, my kids are playing, I don't want anyone to go through that, right?"
"Another crazy thing, another small but important detail. Two minutes before that incident happened to Kawhi Leonard on my foot. Two minutes before, Kawhi was going to check into the game, he stepped on his own teammate's foot and he rolled his ankle. Two minutes prior to that. Nobody is talking about it, nobody. I mean, that's crazy. When you sprain the ankle, it happened to me so many times in my career, it takes time until you get your ankle back in good shape, with strengthening and making sure you don't roll the ankle that easily. Look what happened to Giannis [Antetokounmpo] in this year's playoffs. He rolled his ankle, and the next game, he rolled it again. Out of nowhere. The ankle is already weak, it's a possibility to sprain it again."
"We can come up with so many details, where it happened, it was a freak, bad accident unfortunately."
"Fans can say whatever they want to, I don't have problems with fans, I cannot argue with them, I cannot fight with them whether it was an accident or if it was on purpose. Which is so stupid to me to think about, do I really need to talk about that it was an accident or if it was on purpose? But for the professionals, and for the people who play this game, it was kind of sad to hear from those professionals talking about that I did it on purpose. My answer would be 'If I personally knew that this moment would come in 2016-17, we would be down in the conference finals by 20-plus points, and Kawhi was going to be a key player in that, and I was going to purposely put my foot under him for him to land on and sprain his ankle -- because this was the first and last time it happened in my 16-year career, I played more than 1,000 games, this was the only one time this thing happened -- so if I knew that I was preparing for this moment, you got to give me the credit then, you know? Don't criticize me, give me the credit.' " [Editor's Note: Pachulia laughed as he said this.]
"Again, it is crazy for me to have to keep saying it was a freak accident, because we have seen so many moments of that."
"One of the first things I did, after my incident with Kawhi, I didn't have his number, but we are family in the NBA, so I found his number and I texted him. I apologized to him, whatever happened I told him 'Listen, this definitely was not on purpose, and hopefully he's going to get back soon on the court.' I wanted him to know from me, because there were so many words out there from left or right, I just wanted him to hear from me."
Liffmann: "Did Kawhi respond to you when you reached out?
Pachulia: "No, he didn't, and I was not expecting his response. My main goal was for him to know from me that I really was sorry for whatever happened, and from man-to-man from him to know, it was not on purpose. Because a lot of our colleagues, unfortunately, were saying I purposely did it ... "
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Liffmann: "Do you remember instances with individual players on your team that came to you to support you during that time?"
Pachulia: "Everybody knew what was going on, all the guys reached out obviously to me. KD was one of the first ones. Steph reached out to me that same night actually. I think I still have his text message where he was kind of encouraging me to ignore outsiders, we have a big goal ahead of us, we are close to winning the championship, and I should stay locked in. I was the starting center of the Warriors. The coaching staff [reached out] as well. It was the middle of the conference finals, there was not time to pay to much attention to this. One word, one sentence, like 'Zaza, we need you. Keep your head. Don't listen to outside.' Boom. We were on a mission, we can't mess around here. We cannot let the outsiders drag us out of the focus we had, because we were on the right track, we had not lost a game yet."
"Obviously it meant so much to me, coming from Steph and KD, as our leaders. And Draymond reached out to me. That's my guys. I'm sure they got a lot of DM's and saw what was happening on social media. My name was pretty popular."
"I was watching the playoffs this year, Kyle Korver was in the similar situation with [Andre Iguodala] when he shot the corner 3, and Kyle challenged it. I said 'That was exactly the same thing' and Iggy sprained his ankle. Actually, I texted Andre after the game 'Wow, Kyle Zaza Pachulia'ed you.' Is Kyle dirty? Absolutely not. That happened as one of the million same incidents that happened before, and is still happening. Unfortunately it will continue to happen, you cannot avoid it. Doesn't matter how many rules you are going to change, you can't avoid it. Of course it is not on purpose, it's an accident."