OAKLAND, Calif. -- Every championship series has an X factor. In fact, every team in every championship series has an X factor. And much of the time, everyone is so attuned to and wary of their opponents’ X factor, they dissect and disarm him via scouting, video work and on-court preparation, to the point that those guys wind up having a lot of the X wrung right out of them.
But what about a Z factor? As in, Zaza Pachulia?
Pachulia, the Golden State Warriors’ big man and least glamorous starter, is healthy and ready. And woe to the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA fans in general if he has as great an impact this round as he had in the Western Conference finals sweep of San Antonio.
“For me, it’s already gone. It’s already history,” Pachulia said after the Warriors’ workout Wednesday. “I’m not going to think about it because we have different opponents now. It’s a whole different situation than we had a couple weeks ago.”
Uh, in the event the long gap between series has blurred the memory, Pachulia played a huge role in Golden State’s elimination of the Spurs by venturing far away from the basket in Game 1 to contest a corner 3-pointer by Spurs star Kawhi Leonard ... only to have Leonard land on his foot and aggravate to a series-ending level an ankle sprain injury.
Life came at Pachulia pretty fast from that point: San Antonio blew its big lead and lost the opener. Its coach, Gregg Popovich, erupted the next day over what he considered Pachulia’s dirty play, alleging that the big man intentionally stepped where Leonard would land to trigger the ankle sprain. And the Spurs, hobbled by Leonard’s absence, Popovich’s defeatist rhetoric or both, went belly-up in an anticlimactic four games.
What followed ranged from the ridiculous to the unhinged. One Spurs fans filed a lawsuit against Pachulia on behalf of San Antonio season ticket holders for what that single play meant to their team’s fortunes. Heh heh. But others attacked Pachulia on social media, some in nasty and vulgar verbiage. There were a few death threats mixed in and, most troubling, hints that his family might be in line for some retribution over one intentional or unfortunate basketball play.
Pachulia himself bruised his right heel in Game 2 and did not play when the series shifted to San Antonio. But the venom directed his way, prompting security to be beefed up at his kids’ school, rattled the 14-year veteran.
Popovich, who could have released some of the tension by calling on Spurs fans to act responsibly, did not, declining to revisit the incident in any form. So his comments about Pachulia – “dangerous,” “unsportsmanlike” and “manslaughter” included – hung in the air.
Wisely, the Warriors center shut down his Instagram account and went dark on social media for the duration.
“Especially when it comes to the Finals and playoffs. Your team needs you mentally and physically,” Pachulia said. “Different players react in different ways. For some it’s motivation. Some, they get dragged down. But because it was kind of [referring] to the family and stuff, I just tried to ignore it. It got really annoying. [Social media is] something for summertime.”
In his first season with the Warriors, Pachulia averaged just 18.1 minutes, 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds. But the team went 58-12 in his 70 starts and his impact per 100 possessions was strong (117 offensive rating, 101 defensive rating), factoring in the All-Stars – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green – surrounding him.
Against Cleveland now, in his first Finals, Pachulia will do what he can to thwart Tristan Thompson’s uncanny ability as an offensive rebounder. He’ll use his size (6-foot-11, 270 pounds) to clog the middle when he can and try to stay on the floor as much as possible in games that, at times, will pick up pace beyond his capabilities.
We always play with extra possessions ourselves. It’s one of our strengths throughout the year.
“We always play with extra possessions ourselves,” Pachulia said of Thompson’s knack for generating second chances. “It’s one of our strengths throughout the year.
“They have amazing talent. They’re world champs. They play the right way. They build the necessary things. But I like our talent in our locker room, honestly. Total different team than last year. I love our chances.
Pachulia said the two weeks since he last played, and requisite treatment, have healed his heel. “No problems, no restrictions,” he said. “I’ve been participating in practices the last couple days. Full speed, full load.”
The challenge for him now might be to not limit himself. If Pachulia hears Popovich’s comments echoing in his head, if he worries that the NBA’s grand stage will cast him as a thug or brute, if he lets the Cavaliers or the referees paint a target on him to where he dials back his physical and aggressive play, then his is a matchup Cleveland already will have won.
Pachulia refused to hear of that Wednesday.
“That’s all history for me,” he said. “If you want to win, not only physically but mentally, you’ve got to [be] strong. Besides from taking care of my injury, the [time between rounds] mentally was also beneficial for me. Let everything go – all the negativity – and start with a fresh energy.”
Impressions of Pachulia – and an inkling into how much the Cavaliers might dread facing him or not – were mixed. But none of them, from LeBron James to Kevin Love to Channing Frye, is eager to have him closing out on their jump shots, lest landing become precarious.
“He’s fine,” one member of the team’s traveling party said, with a shrug. “He’s big, he’s slow and he’s clumsy. And he’s lasted  years in the league that way.”
But another Cavs insider said of Pachulia: “Is he a dirty player? It was a dirty play – and he has a reputation. Don’t bail him out now.”
So Pachulia begins his first trip to the Finals wearing a black hat – or would, if anyone could find one large enough for his rather enormous head. The referees might look at him cross-eyed an extra time or two, and the Leonard play is guaranteed to be hauled out and shown on ABC’s broadcast.
Pachulia again will rely on his Warriors teammates, who had his back after Popovich’s criticism and the online hectoring he endured. Dispatching the Spurs quickly was just part of it.
“I had full support from my teammates,” he said. “That’s what I was expecting. We are family here, definitely. I had no doubt in my mind, starting that night, getting text messages from my teammates. Everybody [offered] their support. That’s what made it easier for me to get it over with and just forget about it.”
They’re still there, expecting nothing less than the full Zaza against Cleveland. Fellow Warriors big man David West smiled and nodded his head.
“We’re good,” West said. “Zaza is gonna be Zaza.”
The Z factor.
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