CHICAGO – As if Zaza Pachulia didn’t already feel bad enough, the Golden State Warriors have lost twice now since that moment when Kevin Durant got hurt and left the court in Washington.
They lost that night to the Wizards, they lost again Thursday night to the Bulls at United Center and now that’s two in a row, a blip for most teams but a swoon for the mighty Warriors. Dropping consecutive regular season games? That hadn’t happened to Golden State in nearly two years (April 5-7, 2015).
It certainly never happened before Pachulia fell backwards into Durant’s left leg not long after tipoff in D.C. Thrown to the floor by Wizards center Marcin Gortat, Pachulia – 6-foot-11, 275 pounds – banged into Durant and sent the All-Star forward yelping as if he’d stepped on a Lego in the middle of the night.
Neither as fortunate nor as demoralizing as the Warriors and their fans had a) hoped or b) feared, the gauntlet of medical exams through which Durant limped was definitive: a Grade 2 medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain and a tibial bone bruise. Durant is “out indefinitely,” though the best guess is that he might be able to return with some games left in the regular season.
That’s not nothing. The No. 1 seed in the West suddenly is in play in a way it hadn’t been. If Durant’s timeline is off by a couple of weeks, now the Warriors would be into their postseason.
Then again, Durant’s knee could have gone kablooey right then and there, taking with it Golden State’s hopes of reclaiming the NBA championship it won in 2015.
That might have been too much for Pachulia to bear. This is bad enough.
“I feel bad it happened,” Pachulia said before the Warriors’ 94-87 loss to Chicago Thursday. “If I did something on purpose or even if I had flopped, that probably would have made me feel worse. But it wasn’t even a flop. I got pulled. I fell. Nobody had control over it.
“KD knows. I talked to him after the game and I saw him in his room in his hotel. He knows it was an accident. Bad accident. I had no idea it was going to happen, because we were battling for the rebound. I can’t even blame Gortat, because he was trying to make a basketball play as well. But thank God. I always look at it this way: it can always be worse.”
It’s bad enough, actually. Durant will have to climb the ladder of involvement, from rehab to shooting to drills to contact work to practice and finally to games. A rotation that scrambles now to cover for him will have to adapt again when he returns. Until all the moving parts are back in place – until Golden State looks like its dominating self in blowing through a best-of-seven first- or second-round playoff series – uncertainty is going to linger like a bad houseguest.
"I’m sure Zaza does [feel bad]. I mean, we all would, right? Even if you do it accidentally. You don’t want to be the guy."
No one within the Warriors’ ranks is blaming Pachulia. Freak accidents happen in sports. “Friendly fire” – getting hurt by a teammate – might be more common than opponent-on-opponent crime just because the former can happen in practices as well as games.
Before the start of last season, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, finally healthy, didn’t make it through the Bulls’ first workout in training camp before taking an elbow from teammate Taj Gibson. The orbital fracture near his left eye put him out and set him back in what became the former MVP’s final, disappointing season with the Bulls.
Nobody blamed Gibson then, either. Totally inadvertent. But that sort of thing never is easy to shrug off.
“I’m sure Zaza does [feel bad],” Golden State’s Shaun Livingston said. “I mean, we all would, right? Even if you do it accidentally. You don’t want to be the guy. That’s with anything. It’s human nature. We all know it’s part of the game. It’s just what happens. You watch football, you know it happens all the time.”
Warriors veteran David West recalled the mishap in January 2009 when the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant drove to the basket against Memphis, missed the shot, fell backwards – and slammed into L.A. center Andrew Bynum’s right knee. The big man, just 21, went down, his face contorted in pain. He played just three more regular-season games and, though he returned to help the Lakers win the NBA title that June, his career eventually succumbed to knee and leg injuries by age 26.
“What are you going to do?” West said. “It’s just tough. I remember one time in New Orleans, Chris [Paul] tore his meniscus [knee cartilage]. I inbounded the ball and threw it into the backcourt – probably a little bit too far, a step or two too much. He was running, he had to cut at an angle to get it, he went to plant and that was it. I’ll always remember that night.”
There are, of course, two ways of looking at such an occurrence. There’s the basketball way, as voiced by Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“That’s just a fluke thing,” Kerr said. “I don’t think Zaza feels guilty about it. If he does, he shouldn’t, and I’ll make sure I mention that. Nah, it happens. People get hurt all the time on fluke stuff.”
And then there’s the fans’ way. People want what they want and for Golden State fans, that means nothing less than a glorious return to The Finals, a successful outcome compared to last June’s loss to Cleveland despite their 3-1 lead and, ideally, affirmation of the summertime move to sign Durant in free agency.
Anything short of that? Well, that could be a problem, especially with a pivotal and regrettable incident like Tuesday’s.
Pachulia took to social media Wednesday after the extent of Durant’s injury became known:
Nobody is more disappointed then I'm for KD's injury. But he will be back stronger very soon.— Zaza Pachulia (@zaza27) March 1, 2017
Get well soon my brother 🙏🏻@KDTrey5
What he got in response on Twitter ran the gamut, from moral support to scolding and blame, with some snark from fans of other players and other teams. Here’s a sampling:
You must feel awful. 😟 Best thing you can do is grab more boards and block more shots until he comes back. Counting on you.— who*I*am (@JoyPerfection) March 1, 2017
Love you zaza!!!! LOVE this team!!!! SO MUCH!— Debi Boring (@dboring1) March 2, 2017
“That’s fans. What are you going to do?” Livingston said. “We weren’t looking at Zaza like it was his fault. We were mad at the refs – call a foul.”
Pachulia tried to block out the harshest of what he saw. He was up late that night and still was rattled by his role in Durant’s injury the next day. He took the prognosis as relatively good news, though, and hopes the public can soon do the same.
“Fans are fans,” Pachulia said. “They’re the same everywhere. Not just NBA. It’s so easy for them to say something. And we are living in a world where people want to tear you down mentally. There’s a lot of hating on social media – and I’m not the only one, I’m 100 percent sure. Pick the best player possible – all-time or one who’s playing today – everybody has something to say.”
Barely a month earlier, some fans had been stuffing the All-Star ballot box trying to get Pachulia into the Western Conference’s starting lineup in New Orleans. The Warriors were humming and he was giving them just what they sought (6.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg in 18.7 mpg). Now probably some of the same folks are angry at him.
“They don’t understand details,” he said. “I don’t care what outsiders care or feel, or what they saw. You can’t please everybody, right? Some people are supporters. Some people are against you. Especially when you’re playing with this kind of team.”
That’s part of this, of course. The Warriors are the NBA’s current rock stars, more so even than the defending champs in Cleveland, because of their sizzle, their style, their star power and the added clamor over Durant’s move to the Bay Area. Pachulia, little heralded as the 42nd pick overall in 2003 out of Tbilisi, Georgia, in eastern Europe, has played 14 season for five teams. He never felt the intensity of interest, popularity and scrutiny to rival this.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Obviously the bigger you are, the more attention you get. It’s positive as well. That’s why it’s been amazing for me to play on this team. This is new for me, and I try very hard to block the outside whispering, totally. Otherwise it’s gonna get crazy.”
It’s already crazy. Staying offline might squelch some, considering Robin Williams isn’t around to repeatedly assure him, Good Will Hunting-style, that it’s not his fault.
“The No. 1 thing is that experience counts,” said Pachulia, 33. “I’m glad it’s happening because I’m sure it’s going to make me better going forward. You never know what’s going to happen in life. After my playing career, I might have a [similar] situation but the good thing is, I’m going to remember these days.
“That’s one of the reasons in the beginning I had kind of a slow start. I was listening a lot, I was thinking a lot. But thanks to the people around me, the coaching staff, they’ve helped me to take it right. To block out a lot of things and listen to what matters.”