Here is some bullshit:
That’s Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia, shuffling his foot beneath the already injured ankle of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as the latter attempted a jumpshot in yesterday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, and Leonard, as a result, twisting that ankle gruesomely when he came down. The NBA’s rules explicitly prohibit moving into an airborne player’s landing area; it’s a dangerous action that has, over the years, resulted in countless rolled ankles. Accordingly, the referee whistled Pachulia for a common shooting foul on the play.
The Spurs, whose offense grinds its gears quite a bit even when not deprived of Leonard’s extraordinary efficiency, were up by 21 points when their MVP candidate, their best and most important player at both ends of the court, rose for that jumpshot. He stayed in the game just long enough to make both of the ensuing free-throws, then hobbled directly to the locker room and did not return to action. From the time of his exit to the end of the game, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 56-33. What would have been a major upset, flipping home-court advantage to the Spurs, became a huge comeback win for the heavily favored home team. Now Leonard has been ruled out for Game 2 of the series. It’s very possible that Pachulia’s closeout has already determined who will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
In the aftermath, everybody has had to answer questions about Pachulia’s intent. “Zaza’s not a dirty player,” according to Golden State’s Kevin Durant, and “we’re not that type of team.” Leonard himself agreed it hadn’t been intentional:
Leonard’s coach, Gregg Popovich, isn’t so sure: He went off on Pachulia today, calling it “a totally unnatural closeout” and making reference to past instances of Pachulia taking liberties with opposing players’ health:
The play where he took Kawhi down and locked his arm in Dallas, and could’ve broken his arm. Ask David West, [Pachulia’s] current teammate, how things went when Zaza was playing for Dallas, and he and David got into it. And then think about the history he’s had, and what that means to a team, what happened last night. A totally unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago and pays great attention to it.
Three points, in response. First of all, as we’ve argued before here at Deadspin, it doesn’t—or shouldn’t—make all that much of a difference whether the goon who made a dangerous play and hurt a better player meant to or not. If Pachulia’s foot wound up beneath Leonard’s because he wanted to hurt him, then he’s a maniac, and has no business on an NBA court. If Pachulia’s foot wound up beneath Leonard’s because he closes the athletic gap between himself and other NBA players with the kind of reckless, balls-out effort that will lead to stuff like that happening, then he’s an uncoordinated sub-NBA-grade oaf, and has no business on an NBA court.
(Here is where fans of Zaza Pachulia and/or the Golden State Warriors—and/or people who want to identify themselves as defenders of a certain brand of athletic toughness—will make noises to the effect that Pachulia is just a physical basketball player, rather than a goon with hammers for hands whose basketball value is contained entirely in the likelihood that he will use his six fouls to harm and/or intimidate the opposing team. Okay, fine. Then, presumably, Pachulia’s career prospects would not be harmed at all by changes to the sport that made something like what happened yesterday a thing of the past, and we can all be in favor of those changes. I’m glad we’re all on the same page, here.)
Secondly, this is something that happens too often in the NBA—which after all is why it’s against the rules in the first place. In fact, it’s already happened once before in these very playoffs, in eerily similar circumstances: In Game 1 of the East semifinal series between Washington and Boston, with the favored Celtics trailing at home, the Wizards’ Markieff Morris (like Leonard) attempted a long two-point jumper from the left side of the floor; Boston’s Al Horford slid under him while contesting the shot, and Morris twisted his ankle badly when he landed on Horford’s foot. Like Leonard, Morris remained in the game only long enough to make the ensuing trip to the free-throw line, and never returned; like the Warriors, the Celtics went on to win a game they’d trailed at the time of the injury. As in yesterday’s game, the question afterward was whether the play was intentional or not.
Thirdly, and most importantly, is the reason why the intent question gets asked after every high-visibility instance of this sort of thing. As the rules presently are constructed and enforced, sticking your foot under an opposing player, on purpose, with the intent of causing him to roll his ankle, would be a pretty smart thing to do! The offending team gives up a couple free-throws or an and-one at worst, while the other team loses an entire player. The reason to wonder whether Pachulia did it on purpose is that a dirty but rational player might plausibly do it on purpose. The consequences aren’t stiff enough to make it a stupid choice, and not nearly stiff enough to deter the kind of reckless effort that would lead to this sort of thing happening inadvertently.
Well, why is that? Consider, by contrast, the rule prohibiting players from leaving the bench area during altercations. This rule, which famously killed the New York Knicks in the 1997 playoffs (ex-Deadspinner Katie Baker has a terrific oral history of this over on The Ringer today), came into being as a result of a 1993 brawl between the Knicks and the Phoenix Suns. In that fight, New York’s Greg Anthony, wearing street clothes, ran in from the bench during the brawl to throw a sucker-punch at Phoenix’s Kevin Johnson*, which escalated an already ugly melee into complete chaos.
*Making Anthony, in retrospect, a hero!
In response, the NBA amended its rules; from then on, any player not in the game who left their team’s bench area during an altercation would receive an automatic one-game suspension and a fine of $35,000. And, while this rule has worked out to screw at least two teams (ironically, the two teams involved in the fight that led to the rule’s creation*) in later playoff series, it mostly has worked out okay: Huge brawls probably are worth preventing, and the rule does lead to teams frantically holding their players back whenever a scuffle breaks out.
*The more famous example is the one Baker wrote about on The Ringer: The 1997 East semifinal between New York and Miami swung from a 3-1 Knicks lead to a seven-game Heat win thanks to suspensions to Patrick Ewing and four other Knicks, spread over the series’ final two games. But that 1993 fight came back to sting the Suns, too: In the fourth game of the 2007 West semifinals, San Antonio’s Robert Horry truck-sticked Phoenix’s Steve Nash into the scorer’s table, and in the ensuing fracas both Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left Phoenix’s bench; they received one-game suspensions, the Suns lost a crucial Game 5 at home, and the Spurs clinched in Game 6.
But the funny thing is, in neither the ‘93 fight that led to the harsher penalty for leaving the bench, nor the ‘97 or ‘07 altercations, were any players actually injured as a result of anybody leaving the bench—thermonuclear cheap-shots notwithstanding, fights have rarely led to injury in the NBA. And yet, the infraction is penalized with maximum prejudice. It’s of a piece with the NBA’s broader approach to violence: A top-down control model that prevents big, unlikely events from happening, but does nothing about smaller, much more likely events.
Meanwhile, this is at least the second time in the 2017 NBA playoffs alone that a closeout play has led to a sprained ankle when a defender’s foot wound up in a shooter’s landing area, and that the injury seemed to play a part in swinging the opening game of a series. If your interest is protecting the players from needless injury—or, more cynically, protecting the televised product from being marred by injury—then there’s an imbalance, here.
What, then? Let’s say the NBA had a beefier formal penalty for invading an airborne shooter’s landing area, whether intentionally or not. Let’s go crazy and imagine it triggered an automatic one-game suspension. So what? The Warriors, in yesterday’s case, would lose a lumbering goon who, if he is doing his job well, will foul out as often as not. The Spurs would lose one of the NBA’s best players. It’s still a smart trade-off; you’d still happily coach your hammer-handed oaf of a big man to close out exactly how Pachulia did yesterday. The obvious ramification of that arrangement would be the further incentivizing of what teams already frequently do: giving the job of defending great players to reckless doofuses with energy and fouls to burn, rather than to players they can’t afford to lose. If anything, it would further entice teams to make a special provision for these oafs on their rosters, so that they never had to risk losing one of their actual skilled players to the consequence of an odd bad closeout.
Now consider a different scenario: Pachulia slides over and kicks his foot under Leonard’s landing point. Leonard crumples to the floor in pain. Pachulia turns upcourt ... and LaMarcus Aldridge—not somebody off San Antonio’s bench, but an on-court participant—clotheslines him. Only now we’re in an alternate universe in which the penalty for that retaliatory violence is not an automatic suspension for (at least) the rest of the playoffs, but an ejection and a modest fine. The Spurs, now without their two best players, lose Game 1, probably by a lot more than two points—but let’s be real, they were almost certain to lose from the moment Leonard went down. And Zaza Pachulia loses, forever, the confidence that he can slide under a jumpshooter—whether intentionally or because he is playing with a level of abandon that he will never again indulge—without possibly incurring for himself a trip to the orthodontic surgeon to have his ability to eat solid food restored.
Multiply, by all NBA players, the latitude to knock out the asshole who recklessly (or maliciously) hurts your teammate, and the knowledge that you might get knocked out if you’re the guy who transgresses the game’s boundaries of self-control. My friends, this alternate universe is—okay, yes, sure—one with maybe a somewhat greater number of basketball fights. But it’s also one with fewer reckless (or dirty) closeouts; with fewer slapped dicks-and-balls; with fewer truck-stickings disguised as screens. It is one where, even if the team-level win-loss calculus can’t be adjusted to make a recklessly injurious play as harmful to the goon’s team as it is to his victim’s, at least the personal risk is distributed more evenly: You might get knocked the fuck out. As a result, it is one with less goon shit dressed up like basketball. It is, in all, a better place to play basketball.
As awful as this is to acknowledge, this may be one area where baseball’s unwritten code of behavioral enforcement has it right (even if the list of things that can trigger violent retaliation in baseball remains absurd and coded to protect its existing cultural hierarchies). If you know that at some point you will be forced to stand still in the batter’s box while a pissed-off redneck throws a 95-mile-per-hour stone at your ass, you are less likely to slide in spikes-up at his second baseman. If you know Jonathon Simmons might be coming for your orbital bone, you are less likely to slide your foot under his airborne teammate.
It’s possible even this fix wouldn’t have helped poor Kawhi Leonard. Zaza Pachulia already looks like somebody ran over Tex Cobb’s face with a combine harvester; it’s possible no potential rearrangement of his features could dissuade him from throwing himself around out there. But, in a sports league not driven to insanity by its fear of a fight, it’s an evaluation he’d have to make, instead of letting the rules make it for him; in a basketball game, taking a chance with another player’s health ought to be at least as risky as taking a jumpshot.