Star Player's Injury Prompts Calls To Tighten NBA Rules

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 17, 2017 6:31 pm
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Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA, and last night it showed. Without Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs lost a playoff game to the Golden State Warriors by 36 points. Leonard was out because of a previous injury caused by a Warriors player. The injury has prompted talk of dirty play and possible changes to league rules. NPR's Tom Goldman has more.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Last night's game two of the Western Conference finals on ESPN basically was over by halftime.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: An unbelievable first half performance from the Warriors.

GOLDMAN: Golden State led by 28, and the only potential drama left was what might San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich say post-game. He had gone off the day before talking about whether the Warriors' Zaza Pachulia meant to injure Kawhi Leonard this past Sunday.

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GREGG POPOVICH: Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter?

GOLDMAN: But after last night's shellacking Popovich sounded much more philosophical.

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POPOVICH: I think we've maybe felt it too much, Kawhi being gone, in the sense that I don't think they believed. And you have to believe.

GOLDMAN: Sunday, midway through game one, the Spurs were dominating the favored Warriors, largely due to Leonard's offense, 26 points, and his defense. But in the third quarter he rose for a jump shot and landed on Pachulia's foot. Replays show Pachulia took an extra step and slid his foot directly under Leonard. Leonard turned at an already gimpy ankle and left the game with his team up 23. The Warriors came back and won.

DAVID THORPE: I've studied that play, you know, 40, 50 times. At the very least it was an extremely reckless or sloppy play by Pachulia.

GOLDMAN: David Thorpe is a longtime basketball coach, analyst and author.

THORPE: You have to give him that room so we can land without fear of being hurt.

GOLDMAN: Pachulia denies claims that he's a dirty player. He was charged with a foul on the play. Many howled he should have received a flagrant foul and been ejected from the game. The NBA is standing by the official's call. Joe Borgia is the NBA's senior vice president of replay and referee operation.

JOE BORGIA: It was almost a normal basketball play. Maybe he took an extra step too far.

GOLDMAN: But, Borgia says, Pachulia didn't extend his leg unnaturally or make a kicking motion, which, he says, would warrant a flagrant foul. Beyond Pachulia, the closeout move on jump shooters has become more of an issue. With the long-range three-point shot an important part of today's NBA, more defenders, says coach David Thorpe, are trying to disrupt and distract.

THORPE: You want to make that player think of you as you're shooting the ball, not focus on his form, without any risk for a fouling.

GOLDMAN: But the fouls are happening. In the 2011-2012 season the NBA made what it calls a point of emphasis. Officials were told to watch more closely for defenders taking away shooters' landing areas. Of course, shooters aren't always innocent. They often jump into defenders to try to draw a foul. The question now - with such a prominent player as Leonard going down at a critical time, will the league do more like baseball did?

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It is 2-2 and Tejada's hurt. It was a hard, hard fly to second base by...

GOLDMAN: In the 2015 playoffs, this play helped prompt baseball's adoption of the slide rule to protect infielders from hard-charging baserunners. The NBA's Joe Borgia doesn't know if the Leonard incident alone will prompt a similar change, although it may lead to more discussion about the issue. For now, the time off until Saturday's game three should help Kawhi Leonard heal, but it won't end debate about what the NBA should do to ensure jump shooters have happy landings. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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