Kevin Durant Risked Everything, and He Paid a Devastating PriceJune 11, 2019
TORONTO — Every emotion on the spectrum surged through Scotiabank Arena on Monday, through every Warrior, every Raptor, every fan and probably all the ushers, too. Joy, anguish, anger, concern, confusion, shock, pain. All of it.
It's what we expect in an NBA Finals, when the stakes are the highest and nerves are at their most taut. But not like this. Never quite like this.
The Golden State Warriors won a game, kept their dynasty alive, denied the Toronto Raptors their moment of glory and yet left amid a fog of sorrow and regret.
Kevin Durant, arguably the world's best player, hobbled away on crutches with an Achilles injury that could threaten his career—or at a minimum, diminish his greatness. His teammates left in various states of despair, some choking back tears.
Warriors officials were left grappling with feelings of guilt, having allowed the two-time Finals MVP to play on an injured right calf that perhaps left him vulnerable to something far worse.
And everyone was left to ponder the complex ethics of player care in a league that strives to protect player welfare and still has moments like this.
"Sad day for the NBA," texted a team doctor with another franchise.
The severity of the injury won't be known until Durant undergoes an MRI on Tuesday. But team officials believe he tore his Achilles, according to ESPN.
The consequences could be far-reaching for all involved: for Durant, who was set to enter free agency July 1, with tens of millions at stake; for all the teams that dreamed of making Durant their new centerpiece; for the Warriors, whose hopes for a third straight title just grew dimmer; and for every member of the Warriors hierarchy and medical staff, whose reputations could be tarnished for allowing Durant to play.
The strain of that decision was evident in the watery eyes and cracking voice of general manager Bob Myers, who struggled to compose himself as he addressed reporters late Monday.
"He was cleared to play tonight," Myers said. "That was a collaborative decision. I don't believe there's anybody to blame, but I understand this world, and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department."
Team officials maintain the Achilles injury was not necessarily caused by the calf strain that had kept Durant sidelined since May 8. "It's a different injury," Myers said. But it's fair to conclude that the calf injury left Durant more vulnerable, according to the team doctor of another franchise.
The key word from Myers was "collaborative." Every doctor, trainer and specialist, as well as Durant himself, agreed on the decision to clear him for Game 5, team officials said.
But the second-guessing had begun even before the Warriors completed a stunning 106-105 victory to extend the series. Toronto leads three games to two, with Game 6 on Thursday in Oakland.
So many nagging questions lingered: Did the Warriors hastily clear Durant because they faced elimination? Did Durant feel pressure to rush back? Was he affected by reports that questioned his commitment?
As the backlash began to mount late Monday, Warriors veteran Shaun Livingston fired back with an impassioned defense of the franchise, starting with Myers and coach Steve Kerr.
"Listen, I know for a fact that our team, Bob and Steve, and the training staff, is not going to compromise their integrity [just to win a game]," Livingston told B/R. "They're always going to put a player first because they look at guys as humans."
Livingston has played 14 seasons in the NBA, the last five with Golden State. And he's surely an authority on career-threatening injuries, having overcome one of the most devastating knee injuries in modern history in 2007, during his third season. Livingston, as much as anyone, is sensitive to the delicate balance between competitive drive and appropriate caution. And he's certain the Warriors followed every protocol before clearing Durant.
"This is his career," Livingston said. "He obviously has a lot on his table—playing for his brand, playing for his free agency. Like, anything can happen, right? [The Warriors] don't necessarily put the team first; they put players first. They put guys first. So I know that they went through all the channels that they needed to go through for him to get cleared to play. And then it's up to the player, on if he's healthy, ready to go."
The optics were tough, though. Durant had not played since Game 5 of the second round, when he strained his calf against the Houston Rockets. He had not even practiced until Sunday afternoon—in the wake of two humiliating losses in Oakland. A Raptors coronation seemed imminent, expected even.
But then Durant practiced and had no setbacks. Then came a shootaround Monday morning. Soon, word leaked out that he'd been cleared to play. A Warriors revival seemed possible. His first minutes back on the court were inspiring.
He guarded Pascal Siakam with aggression. Nailed his first shot, a three-pointer. Then nailed another. Chased Kyle Lowry. Banged with Marc Gasol. Dove to challenge Serge Ibaka for a loose ball. Landed hard and bounced back up. Fouled Fred VanVleet hard and then gleefully yapped at him.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were sharp. Draymond Green was springy. All things seemed possible, even a comeback from a 3-1 deficit. The mood changed in an instant.
Just over two minutes into the second quarter, Durant crossed up Ibaka, lost the ball, hopped awkwardly on his left leg and then dropped to the floor, clutching his lower right leg. Moments later, he was hobbling toward the locker room, one arm draped around Rick Celebrini, the Warriors' director of sports medicine, the other around Andre Iguodala.
Everything about this series has been unique. No Finals has ever begun with a superstar missing the first four games while quietly looming as a potential momentum-changer. Durant's absence, the mystery shrouding his rehab, the conflicting daily updates and the sudden turn of events that placed him back in the starting lineup all conspired to make this a strange, volatile series. The Raptors looked dominant, sure, but the mere possibility of a Durant return meant no outcome was certain.
That mystery is over. Durant is gone for the series and possibly gone for good. Sources across the league have long believed Durant would leave the Warriors this summer, possibly to join the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Clippers. And now there's a whole new array of questions.
Does the injury change his plans? Might Durant, who turns 31 in September, exercise his $31.5 million player option and delay free agency until 2020, when he'll presumably be healthy? Will rivals be willing to offer a full four-year, $164 million max contract to a player who's rehabbing an Achilles—perhaps the toughest injury to overcome? Can any team stomach pinning its future to an injured player, knowing he might miss the next year?
One thing is clear: Those who questioned Durant's resolve or competitive drive or commitment to this championship run were wrong. He risked everything Monday night for his team and paid an incredibly steep price.
"He put it on the line," Livingston said. "He wanted to put it on the line for us. I think he put his balls on the line, really trying to be there for us, obviously in dire need, elimination game, down 3-1, the world's against us."
It's generally foolish for fans or media to judge an injured player or assume they should just gut it out and play. We cannot possibly know the pain or the risks involved. Durant's devastating injury probably won't change that discussion, but it should.
"We don't want to see what happened tonight happen to anybody, off the pressure of media, off the pressure of anybody external," Livingston said.
Did Durant, who has often been sensitive to criticism, rush back because he felt that pressure?
"I don't know," Livingston said. "Only he can answer that question."
We might not get that answer for some time. The sad truth is, for now and the foreseeable future, one of the greatest players we've ever seen has been reduced to one giant question mark.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck.