You don’t need to know all the details of Kevin Durant’s injury to know that what happened in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday was a basketball tragedy.
You don’t need to be a doctor to know that something bad happened to Durant’s right leg. The slow-motion video makes it look like someone fired a rubber-band gun inside his leg, and the rubber band was probably some critical tendon or ligament that isn’t supposed to snap like a rubber band. Durant had to be helped off the floor, cursing loudly enough to be caught by television microphones. Hours later, he left the arena on crutches, accompanied by his manager and Warriors general manager Bob Myers. Myers explained through tears Monday night that the injury was to Durant’s Achilles tendon. It was reported that the team believes it to be an Achilles tear, although that won’t be confirmed until after an MRI is taken. Achilles tears are relatively rare; athletes are also generally much worse once they come back from them. A tear would likely keep him out for a year—long into what was supposed to be a fresh start in a new city for the oft-criticized superstar. But like I said, we didn’t need all the details. We didn’t need to hear the pain in Durant’s voice or see Myers crying, and we don’t need to know the results of the MRI to know that this was bad.
You also don’t need to be a doctor to know that the bad thing that happened to Durant was probably caused by the fact that he played before his body was fully healed. Last month, Durant hurt his right leg, an injury that looked to many like an Achilles injury at the time, but was diagnosed by team doctors as a calf strain. Calf strains are tricky; some heal quickly while others don’t. The Warriors never released a timeline for his return, initially hinting that he could be ready to play during May’s Western Conference finals. But he sat, and he sat, and he sat. Eventually, with Golden State facing elimination, he was cleared to play in Game 5 and took the floor for the first time in over a month, when the rubber band snapped. Like I said, you don’t need to know whether the injury was a calf strain, or the difference between a calf strain and an Achilles injury, or how calf strains work, or how the Warriors explained the timeline. Anybody could tell that Durant injuring the same leg within a few minutes of retaking the court was probably a sign that he tried to come back before his body was fully healed.
You don’t need to know the exact details of how Durant was placed in the lineup before he was ready because of the nature of Game 5. In an article published Friday at The Athletic, Tim Kawakami reported that those around the Warriors were privately griping that Durant should have been ready—and Kawakami speculated that other Warriors would have toughened up and gotten in playing shape faster. After all, the Warriors lost Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney to a strained hamstring and broken collarbone, respectively, in Game 2, and both were back by Game 4. When Thompson sat out Game 3, head coach Steve Kerr said that he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if Thompson had rushed back and gotten reinjured. After Durant rushed back and got reinjured, Kerr told reporters to ask Myers about the decision. Myers said it was a “collaborative decision.” We don’t need to know exactly who collaborated on that decision to know that at some point, somebody decided this game was important enough to risk this result.
Perhaps that person was Durant. Durant’s a competitor, and probably didn’t want to sit on the sideline during an elimination game in the NBA Finals. And Durant has been known to listen to the whispers. This is the guy who tried to win Twitter fights via burner account. His reputation is important enough to him that he needed to defend it, even to random anonymous internet people, even if he had to do it himself. If anybody was questioning Durant’s toughness, or saying the team needed him to return, he heard it.
And when Durant hears people talking about him, he acts. After all, just three years ago, he made the bold decision to play for the Warriors in response to criticism that he hadn’t yet won any NBA championships. In his first two years, the Warriors won two NBA championships and Durant was named Finals MVP twice. The response was … not what Durant expected when he signed with the Warriors. Instead of being praised for finally getting over the hump and becoming a champion, he was criticized as a front-runner for joining a team that didn’t need him. That’s why Durant was widely expected to leave the Warriors in free agency this summer.
When Durant went down with the calf injury in May, the take that the team didn’t need him was trumpeted louder and prouder than ever, as Golden State closed out the Rockets and swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals without him. When it became clear that the Warriors did need Durant, he stepped up. And for a few minutes, Durant’s decision to come back looked great. He was dancing in the locker room, throwing down emphatic pregame dunks, and playing like Kevin Durant. He hit every 3-pointer he took, and helped give the Warriors a lead when he left. (They won by one point, in a game where he scored 11.) It felt exactly the way sports are supposed to feel—we were watching perhaps the game’s best player playing at his best, giving his team everything at the most critical juncture of the season.
The best-case scenario Durant was chasing was beautiful. He had the opportunity to redeem every negative narrative hurled at him. In one fell swoop, he could’ve rallied Golden State back from the brink; he could’ve proved the team needed him to win; he could’ve proved he was tough enough to fight back from injury; he could’ve won his third and most impressive championship to date. If he’d pulled it off, he could’ve left Golden State knowing he’d proved himself the best player on one of the best teams in basketball history, or he could’ve stayed and won with fewer haters chiding him for picking such talented teammates.
The worst-case scenario—or, as we can call it now, the thing that happened—is that Durant’s leg was not going to hold up for three games, and that his decision to play could alter the rest of his career. Durant had dreams of heading into free agency and forging a new path elsewhere. Those dreams are indefinitely on hold.
Somebody should’ve held him back. Of course, the Warriors had little reason to hold Durant back. Their season was doomed without him. For them, the best-case scenario was a championship. The worst-case scenario, however, wasn’t really that different from the reality they were already facing. If Durant sat out the rest of the series, they were likely to lose, and Durant was likely to leave in free agency. Now that Durant is hurt, they are likely to lose, and Durant is likely to leave in free agency—except he’s probably going to be less of an asset for whichever team he chooses. For Durant, the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios could change his life. For the Warriors, the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios will affect the next five days or so. Again, we don’t know the details, so I can’t say the Warriors committed malpractice by letting Durant play. But anybody watching knows that Durant had so much more to lose than they did.
Perhaps you disagree with Durant’s decision to join the Warriors. But you can’t dispute the quality of his play since, a nearly impeccable run of three years of basketball. He’s been the best scorer on one of the best teams in the sport’s history. He has done everything asked of him, and was still repeatedly told that it wasn’t enough; that he had no heart; that he was taking away from the greatness of those around him. He chased the best-case scenario, and never realized he was stepping into a world fraught with drawbacks. The same thing happened when he came back to try to save the Warriors: He was dreaming of crafting the perfect answer to every criticism.
That’s why this hurts. I’m not a Warriors fan, nor do I have any personal connection to Durant, but I was furious at the news of Durant’s injury. I sent an angry tweet. I cried when I saw the video of what seems to be his tendon snapping. I’m not normally a guy who sends angry tweets or cries about sports! But what happened to Durant seemed so cruel. He was driven to answer all the criticism, fair or unfair, no matter whether it was levied by people with his best interests at heart or total randos. That drive may strip Durant of some of his greatness, the one thing nobody was ever able to criticize.