Zaza Pachulia’s reputation as at best a clumsy menace and at worst a maliciously dirty foe has been one of the darker themes of the Golden State Warriors’ remarkable success the past two seasons. Last spring, Pachulia was accused of intentionally stepping under San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, a play that put Leonard out with a sprained ankle.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday in Oakland, Pachulia raised eyebrows again when he fell on top of Thunder star Russell Westbrook’s legs, a move seen by many as a targeted dive to inflict damage on the reigning MVP. And don’t forget, it was Pachulia who fell into teammate Kevin Durant’s legs last February, sidelining the prolific Warriors scorer for five weeks.
But to Golden State’s coaches and players, Pachulia is appreciated for his work ethic, his screens, his passing, his defense and his demeanor. So flipping him out of the starting lineup was not taken lightly, according to Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
It was a tough blow for a player who had come to embrace his role as the fifth starter on a team loaded with four All-Stars. But during that two-minute conversation at Golden State’s practice facility, as [coach Steve] Kerr explained his lineup switch, Pachulia held in his disappointment.
“As a competitor, you want to be a starter,” Pachulia said Saturday. “But at the same time, I’ve always been a team player. I can’t think about it individually.”
During his 15 years in the NBA, Pachulia has built a reputation as a consummate professional. Now, in the wake of his most high-profile demotion to date, Pachulia is reinforcing why Kerr was so pleased he re-signed with Golden State last summer: Though his resolve is being tested, Pachulia is not letting his frustration spill into the locker room.
In Saturday night’s 112-80 win over Oklahoma City, he was a steadying force against Thunder center Steven Adams, boxing out one of the league’s best offensive rebounders and setting screens to free up teammates. Though Pachulia tallied only four points, six rebounds and two assists, he also posted a plus-minus of plus-27 in 19 minutes. JaVale McGee, who had supplanted him in the starting lineup two days earlier, was a minus-10 in 10 minutes.
“Zaza, he’s part of our moral compass on this team,” Kerr said. “He’s the ultimate pro. No matter what role you give him, you know he’s going to work. You know he’s going to support his teammates. You know he’s part of trying to win. We’re lucky to have him, and I’m lucky to coach him.”
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