OAKLAND -- For the better part of his first two months in a Warriors jersey, Zaza Pachulia was tentative on offense and unimposing on defense. The transition was difficult enough that he remarked about how “hard” it is to play with so many stars.
He fumbled entry passes and rarely finished at the rim. He was either fifth or sixth on the team in blocked shots.
Just as fans were wondering why the Warriors signed him -- and why they weren’t seeing more of JaVale McGee -- the fog that so often seemed to conceal Pachulia’s skills is starting to burn off.
The number of plays he has made over the past week, notably in the 117-106 win over Sacramento on Sunday, are showcasing Pachulia’s ability. His teammates and coaches are noticing.
“The more you play with each other, the more comfortable you get,” Draymond Green said late Sunday night. “I can’t say we’ve had a big like Zaza that we’ve played with for the last four of five years. You get more comfortable as the season goes on, and he’s getting more comfortable. You start to figure out where he likes the ball, and where he’s going to be. And as of late, we’ve been doing a better job of it.”
Pachulia’s numbers are climbing. He scored in double figures twice in the first 34 games. He’s done it in each of the last four, averaging 11.0 points per game on 66.7-percent shooting.
But his value goes beyond numbers. Pachulia’s presence is, to his teammates, much more settling, perhaps because he is feeling much more settled.
“I just feel more comfortable,” Pachulia said after practice Monday. “Maybe I’m in better shape. Maybe I wasn’t in as good a shape as now at the beginning of the season. Something changed. I feel better.
“In the beginning, it was all about watching and observing, like, ‘What can I do to help these guys and to help the team and get them better shots, instead of contested shots.’ I was caught up in that a lot. I think less now. Not because I don’t care, but just because I feel more comfortable. I know their games better. I know what to do.”
Because he’s a 6-foot-11 center that rarely blocks a shot and lacks a go-to offensive move, the belief was that Pachulia would earn his keep by doing the subtle things that would help to win games. He’d communicate on defense and use the knowledge gleaned over 13 seasons to aid in any way possible. He’d set screens, occasionally find a cutter with a pass, keep opponents off the glass and grab a few rebounds.
The 32-year-old native of the Republic of Georgia has gained enough confidence in his surroundings to go beyond that.
Pachulia was in the middle of the play of the night in the win over Sacramento. Kevin Durant blocked a DeMarcus Cousins shot, with the ball bouncing to Pachulia. Without hesitation, the big man flipped a no-look outlet pass backward over his head to a streaking Stephen Curry, who took it in for a layup.
“Zaza’s got a little flair to him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He likes making plays like that. Not that he’s constantly making them, but he’s got a little of that in him and I know he had fun with that play.”
Pachulia, whose impressive showing in the balloting for the All-Star Game has inflated his celebrity status, though hardly his head, downplayed the pass that made the video rounds on social media.
“I don’t want to be caught up in it,” he said. “Just make sure it’s a solid play for me. That’s how I look at it, to be solid and accurate and a good pass. But, honestly, in that situation, I saw Steph was wide open. So I didn’t want to waste any time and turn around and pass it. I just let the ball go because he was by himself.”
The play took vision, skill and a certain audacity. It’s easier to be audacious with your teammates when you’re comfortable with them as players and as people, no matter if they are “stars.”