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NBA playoffs 2017: Kawhi Leonard’s injury signals larger problem for perimeter-oriented NBA

Kevin Durant said flatly after Game 1 of the Western Conference finals that, “You can’t listen to people on Twitter, man. They’re irrational.” And he has a point. But that doesn’t change the fact that the NBA has a problem, one that goes beyond the ankle injury suffered by star Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard on Sunday.

In case you missed it, the basics are these: With 7:55 to go in the third quarter and San Antonio leading by 21, Leonard went up for a shot in the left corner. Warriors big man Zaza Pachulia went out to challenge the shot, got a hand in the face of Leonard and had his foot come down in the vicinity of Leonard’s landing spot.

Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot, turned his ankle and missed the rest of the game. The Warriors came back and won that game, with Leonard’s status for Game 2 in question.

The play caused an uproar over whether Pachulia intentionally left his foot in Leonard’s landing zone, and whether some action other than a common foul should have been called because of it. Pachulia shook off such a notion after the game, saying, “That’s really stupid. I’m not that good to be doing intentional stuff like that. I did my part like I said. I had to challenge the shot.”

That’s where these become really difficult plays to call. Pachulia is right — he was doing exactly what he was assigned to do, which is to help a teammate recover from a screen and challenge a shot on the perimeter. A hard close-out is what we want of all defenders. Pachulia delivered that.

But he is also a 275-pound man playing in a defensive system that is switch-heavy. That’s going to call for him to throw his body around on the perimeter in a way he hasn’t done for much of his 14-year career. The fact that his foot came down in the same place, at the same time, as Leonard’s foot is not surprising.

The refs did all that they could. And the league should do nothing further, because Pachulia did nothing that is demonstrably worthy of suspension.

There is no way to tell whether there was intent on Pachulia’s part. NBA rules call for what happened on the Pachulia-Leonard play to be a foul, and no more. The reason? Because there is no way to tell whether Pachulia intended to hurt Leonard. Durant is right — folks on Twitter will register their opinions but certainty is impossible. Expect irrationality.

But this is a bigger issue for the league. The way the game has gone, with the explosion of perimeter shooting and the prominence of the 3-pointer in today’s NBA, there are more and more instances of late close-outs, which leads to more and more awkwardness for big men trying to defend on the outside. That could lead to more injuries like the one Leonard suffered.

The NBA could put in tougher restrictions on landing in a shooter’s space. That will only make a league that is getting a bit too 3-friendly even more so, though. But if health is the priority, the league will have to bump up its toughness on these plays.

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There will be hot takes aplenty on Pachulia and Leonard, those who are sure to know what Pachulia’s intentions were when Leonard got hurt. That’s the irrationality that Durant referenced. As long as the game transitions to the perimeter, there will be big defenders put into tough positions, and these kinds of plays will continue to be problems.


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