Seldom in life can you say in the immediate aftermath of an occasion that it was truly unforgettable. But Monday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals will be remembered as long as basketball is played, and its impact could have league-wide reverberations for years to come.
The most obvious impact is on which team will win this year’s NBA title after Toronto curiously coughed up a six-point lead when the Raptors were just three minutes away from Canada’s first-ever NBA title. The Raptors’ stunning collapse (one of the worst in championship sports history) and the Warriors’ late-game heroics would normally merit a whole column in itself.
But not this time. Because Monday night was all about Kevin Durant.
Even casual basketball observers probably know the Durant story by now. Perhaps the greatest natural scorer in recent NBA history, the 6’11” wingman was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007. Durant moved with the Sonics franchise to Oklahoma City, where he turned the Thunder into a perennial power, culminating in a 2012 NBA Finals appearance and a 2014 NBA MVP Award. When Durant received his MVP trophy, he gave a moving 25-minute speech in which he thanked every OKC teammate by name and gave particular praise to his mother Wanda, who successfully raised him as a single mom in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Five years ago, Durant, who also donated $1 million to aid Oklahoma tornado relief in 2013, was among the most universally admired athletes in the world.
That all changed on July 4, 2016 when Durant made a bizarre decision to leave his title-contending Thunder, fresh off a heartbreaking seven-game playoff series loss to the 73-win Golden State Warriors, to sign with of all teams, the Warriors. Not only did Durant’s move shift the power structure of the league, making the Warriors a virtual title lock for the foreseeable future, Durant also showed a surprising lack of self-awareness. For example, instead of even calling his longtime running mate Russell Westbrook, whom he left behind in Oklahoma, Durant reportedly sent him a brief text to tell him he was off to the Bay. Over the past three years, Durant has continued to act in many instances like a front-running bully who has been atypically sensitive to media and fan attacks for a celebrity of his stature. At one point, the thin-skinned Durant famously created burner social media accounts to defend himself against critics and just two weeks ago he basically called a media member a liar during a Twitter beef.
Nevertheless, Durant’s on-court success in Golden State has gone as-advertised, collecting a pair of NBA Finals MVP trophies and two (so far) championship rings despite persistent attacks that his titles are meaningless because the deck appears stacked against the rest of the league. With Golden State the heavy favorite to threepeat, Durant opened the 2019 playoffs on a tear, averaging 35 points per game over his first 10 playoff games. But on May 8, Durant pulled up lame after a jump shot in the third quarter of a critical win against the Houston Rockets. While the Warriors claimed Durant suffered a calf strain, TNT analyst Reggie Miller immediately noted the way Durant grabbed at the back of his lower leg, indicating an Achilles tendon injury.
Warriors’ brass initially said Durant would be back within several weeks, but his absence stretched out to a full month. While Golden State initially continued to thrive without Durant, his absence was felt in the Finals as the Raptors’ defense smothered the Warriors’ vaunted offense. With the Raptors leading the series 3-1 and one game away from the title, the whispers about Durant’s injury grew. Was Durant’s injury worse than the Warriors initially let on? Or was the upcoming free agent merely saving his body for the $200 million contract he’s expected to receive in three weeks? When Bay Area columnist Tim Kawakami of The Athletic reported after a Game 4 loss that some Warriors’ insiders were confused as to why Durant had not yet returned, it only heightened the intrigue.
After a light workout on Sunday, Durant was finally cleared by Warriors’ team doctors to play on Monday. He appeared fine in pre-game, dancing in the hallway and throwing down a two-handed jam in front of a boisterous Toronto crowd. Then, when the game started, a tentative Durant came out ablaze, burying his first three long-distance attempts. As the Warriors’ clung to an early lead, Durant’s confidence appeared to grow. Early in the second quarter, he tried to make a move on ex-teammate Serge Ibaka, but his right leg, the same leg he injured one month earlier, gave way. Close-range cameras showed Durant’s leg muscles literally ripple as his Achilles appeared to rupture.
As Durant limped off the floor amidst an initial chorus of cheers from Toronto fans, it was immediately clear his season was over and his future is in limbo. With Durant having left the arena prematurely, Warriors’ GM Bob Myers was left to tell the waiting postgame media that Durant had in fact injured his Achilles this time. According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, the Warriors believe Durant tore his Achilles tendon (an MRI was to occur Tuesday), an injury that could keep him out for six months to a year.
The basketball ramifications of Durant’s injury are huge. Teams like the New York Knicks that were expected to make their pitches to Durant on July 1 will now be left wondering whether he will ever again be the superstar he’s been for the past decade. And whether he stays or leaves, the Warriors will likely drift back closer to the pack without him in the lineup for at least the early portion of next season.
But let’s look at the more important impact of the injury, the overall manner in which sports franchises do business. NBA franchises are required to provide daily injury reports with Durant having been listed as “questionable” with a “right calf strain” prior to Monday’s game. These reports are issued more for Vegas betting lines than for actual transparency, and pro franchises have been known to hide injuries (cough, cough New England Patriots). But the Warriors never revealed much information about Durant’s initial “calf” injury, a move that reeked of gamesmanship. For the last month, Warriors’ opponents have been scrambling to gameplan not knowing whether Durant would play, a scenario obviously beneficial to Golden State.
While Myers claimed that he didn’t think anyone was to blame for Durant’s injury, I disagree. I think a whole lot of people were to blame. While I guess it’s possible, as Myers contended, that Durant’s Achilles injury could be unrelated to a “calf strain” on the same leg, that seems like a tale that would cause Pinocchio’s nose to grow. Was Durant’s first injury related to his Achilles all along? If so, did the Warriors hide it either to make opponents think he would be coming back sooner than anticipated or did they hide it to protect his big payday in July? Or was the initial injury misdiagnosed all along?
These are all questions that the Warriors’ organization needs to answer soon. Here’s a few more: Why did Myers, head coach Steve Kerr, owner Joe Lacob and anyone else in the Warriors’ organization with decision-making power think it was a good idea to put a superstar in an NBA Finals game who reportedly hadn’t even completed a single 5-on-5 practice? Why did KD’s agent Rich Kleiman not advise his soon-to-be-superwealthy client to rest a few more weeks until the ink dries on that $200 million deal? And why did ANYONE question Durant’s heart, insinuating he might actually sit out an NBA Finals in which he was healthy enough to play?
So here’s the blame count so far: Lacob, Myers, Kerr, Warriors’ doctors, Kleiman, teammates who questioned Durant’s motives, media members who questioned Durant’s motives, fans like me who initially delighted in a basketball villain’s apparent misfortune and, yes, Durant himself.
Thanks to LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and many other superstar athletes, the past decade will be remembered as the one in which players seized control. And Durant should have exerted his over the Warriors last night. The one-time fan favorite, who controversially entrusted the Warriors with his future in 2016 to the detriment of his reputation, was thoroughly let down by everyone associated with the Warriors on Monday night. With a monster paycheck almost completely in his grasp, he never should have tried (or felt pressured) to play on a bum leg, no matter the significance of the contest. Barbaric sports fans and media members, often former athletes, criticize modern athletes for not being as tough as they were. The world needs to stop all that nonsense. If a player is hurt, he needs to sit out. And Durant should have listened to his body and taken control of the situation before he suffered a career-threatening injury.
Leonard took flack in 2018 for enlisting his own medical team when he disagreed with San Antonio Spurs’ team doctors assessment of his quad injury. As a result of the rift, he demanded a trade and ended up in Toronto, where he is likely to win NBA Finals MVP in a few days. All athletes who can afford to do so need to go Leonard’s route and get independent physicians, who aren’t paid by franchises, to evaluate their injuries.
Who knows where this story goes from here? Durant could delay free agency for a year and opt-in for another year with Golden State for $31 million. But why would he trust the Warriors’ doctors to handle his Achilles rehab after they (at the very least) erroneously advised him that his injury couldn’t worsen if he played on Monday?
And so, the NBA Finals heads back to Oakland’s Oracle Arena for one final well-deserved send-off on Thursday night. The games will go on, but they are diminished. Kevin Durant deserved better.