By BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer
Kawhi Leonard had already launched his jump shot and Zaza Pachulia kept sliding toward him while Leonard was in the air.
Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot and crashed to the court in pain.
The play that knocked Leonard out of the game with an injured left ankle and helped Golden State’s huge rally in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals is one the NBA started cracking down on four seasons ago in an effort to protect jump shooters.
But with long-distance shots playing such a heavy role in offenses these days, the risk of injury isn’t going away.
Nor is the debate — one the Spurs have seen from both sides — that raged long after the Warriors’ 113-111 victory Sunday. While Leonard is respected for the way he defends without fouling, opponents hated the way former defensive ace Bruce Bowen crowded too closely on their jumpers.
“We see this quite often in the NBA where that defender, they just go a little too far and you’re not allowed to take the landing area away from the jump shooter,” Joe Borgia, the NBA’s senior vice president of replay and referee operations, said Sunday while discussing the foul that was called on Pachulia on his “Making the Call” video segment on NBA.com.
“Obviously a very dangerous situation for players, and the referee luckily stayed on that play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”
That wasn’t enough for ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who argued that Pachulia should have been called for a flagrant one for intentionally sliding under Leonard, which both players denied.
“Did he step under it? Like on purpose? No,” Leonard said afterward. “He was contesting a shot. The shot clock was coming down. I’ll have to see the play.”
Pachulia said he was just trying to contest the shot and seemed surprised at first that a foul was even called, though many observers on social media thought the play looked suspect.
“Zaza’s not a dirty player. You’ve got to time that perfectly if you want to hurt somebody,” teammate Kevin Durant said. “We’re not that type of team. Kawhi’s an unbelievable player. We’ve got nothing but respect for him. We wish that he gets healthy. We just tried to contest a shot. Guys are playing hard. It was an unfortunate situation, I wish it didn’t happen, but I don’t think it was intentional. You can’t listen to people on Twitter, they’re irrational.”
But they aren’t the only ones lately wondering if one of those fouls was intentional. Markieff Morris did the same after the Washington forward landed on Al Horford’s foot in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal, knocking him out of a game the Celtics rallied to win.
Realizing the potential for ankle injuries — a problem for Warriors star Stephen Curry earlier in his career — the NBA made the play one of its points of emphasis for officials before the 2013-14 season , stressing that shooters had to be given the freedom to land. But in a series like the West finals, matching the Warriors’ lethal outside shooters against a Spurs team that led the league in 3-point percentage during the regular season, neither team is going to want to allow too much space.
That’s all Pachulia had in mind.
“I just did what I was supposed to do and challenged his shot. I turned around and there was a call,” Pachulia said. “I didn’t notice that he was down until I turned back actually. So I didn’t see what happened there.”
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