OAKLAND (AP) — Zaza Pachulia heard all the negative noise from the home crowd, and he began taking it personally.
He was the new guy this season, the lone non-All-Star in Golden State’s star-studded top five. He was no Andrew Bogut, the imposing big man he replaced. Fans got nasty with their frustration.
Now, Pachulia constantly recalls what coach Steve Kerr preaches: The only thing that matters is how the Warriors feel about each other, not what anyone outside thinks or says.
Not that it was easy for Pachulia to ignore the scrutiny initially.
“That was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had. I’ve never been in this situation,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, I understand it. It was very emotional for me at the beginning. I was kind of taking it very personal. But that’s where mental toughness kicks in.
“I’m fortunate I have friends who have been in this situation throughout the league, but most importantly, the biggest help came from my coaching staff.”
With Kerr’s words on his mind, Pachulia made a conscious decision to tune out the critics.
Not that Kerr has noticed, aside from Pachulia’s strong play of late.
“That is a major issue from every NBA player these days but particularly our guys in the spotlight, the constant judgment and criticism,” Kerr said Tuesday. “It’s not easy to deal with and I think it’s important for guys to put into perspective the way the world works these days. You have to be able to block stuff out and ignore stuff and just play and compete and enjoy what you have.”
It took time for the Warriors to click just as everybody involved expected, and Pachulia has been at the center of the development. Early on, Pachulia opted to do more observing to learn, and he also notes he had to get in better shape. He is far more comfortable now, and the 32-year-old center is emerging at the perfect time.
The Warriors are headed toward the second half with Pachulia having found his place complementing Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
Last month, Pachulia had season bests of 15 points and 14 rebounds in a win at Brooklyn, and he believes that helped him turn a corner. He had four straight games in double figures entering Tuesday night’s home matchup with Miami after doing so just twice in his first 32 games.
In a victory at Sacramento on Sunday, Pachulia made a jaw-dropping, no-look backward heave that was right on target to Curry and led to an easy basket by the MVP.
“He’s tried some crazy stuff before, but he made a good, timely read as the best way to get me the ball,” Curry said. “One bounce into my lap and I was able to finish it. I’m sure coach will make sure he’s not experimenting too much more with that.”
Pachulia has enjoyed being part of the “fancy stuff” these pass-happy Warriors have become known as they rack up 30-assist performances at an astonishing rate.
“Zaza’s got a little flair to him,” Kerr said. “He likes making plays like that.”
Never before had the big man from the Republic of Georgia — where he is generating daily All-Star support — been part of a team with so many great players, and finding his way with this group made for a daunting adjustment. That core of talent is also the very reason he chose to join Golden State for his 14th season and chase a championship.
“No disrespect to Dallas, Milwaukee, but we weren’t this type of team. No one was expecting a championship from us,” Pachulia said. “This team is different, right? Let’s be honest. So every time you make a mistake on the court, and that’s very normal, especially in the beginning, it looks like 10 times, 100 times worse. Fans are spoiled here because of the types of seasons they had.”
For Pachulia, the improvements have come from focusing on the small things — such as minor footwork adjustments and working to better defend the perimeter.
That has come with a willingness to learn.
“The thing that I’m most proud of in watching him this year is his growth. I’m talking about a guy who’s played a lot of basketball,” Warriors assistant coach and defensive guru Ron Adams said. “The ability to be coached at his age has really been fun. ... He is one of those lifelong learners.”
Still, Pachulia knows the compliments from those around him must be earned.
From the basketball-crazed Bay Area fans, too.
“My skin got thicker,” he said. “I don’t listen to stuff from outside or even if I hear or if I read something, I just let it go very easily. It’s not bothering me, because the truth is that Steph or Klay or KD or Draymond or Andre (Iguodala), all these guys, they either like playing with me or they don’t. That’s what matters. The coaching staff is happy with my presence or not.
“Maybe the first day, you’re not expecting any of your teammates to give you some good words. We’ve played enough games that my teammates have a lot of compliments to say about me. My coaching staff has a lot of compliments to say about me. Those compliments don’t come just like that. They are professionals and you get a compliment because you deserve it. That means a lot.”