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Kevin Durant denies being ‘pressured’ to play in Finals, but the pressure was hard to ignore

Kevin Durant (35) is helped off the court during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant made news Wednesday with published comments in which he absolved the Golden State Warriors of any blame for the torn Achilles’ tendon he suffered while returning to action in the NBA Finals.

“How can you blame [them]? Hell, no,” he said to a suggestion from Yahoo Sports that Golden State mishandled the calf injury that sidelined him for several weeks before Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors. “I heard the Warriors pressured me into getting back. Nobody never said a word to me during rehab as I was coming back.

“It was only me and [director of sports medicine and performance] Rick [Celebrini] working out every day,” he continued. “Right when the series started, I targeted Game 5. … [Expletive] happens. Nobody was responsible for it. It was just the game.”

Here’s the thing, though: Even if no one from Golden State specifically said anything to Durant about hastening his return from injury, that doesn’t mean that he might not have felt a message being sent his way.

As it was, through media reports while the Warriors were falling behind by a 3-1 margin in the Finals, a charged atmosphere built up of uncertainty about his calf injury and his willingness to play through it. And we know that Durant often pays close attention to what’s being said about him in the media.

For example, he ripped media members in February for what he saw as excessive speculation about his free agency plans, in particular chatter regarding his supposed interest in joining the New York Knicks. He singled out a writer for The Athletic who had just written on the topic, saying the reporter “comes in here and just gives his whole opinion on stuff and makes it seem like it’s coming from me, and he just walks around here, don’t talk to nobody, just walk in here and survey and write something like that.”

Is it likely then that Durant took no notice of this passage from another member of The Athletic’s NBA staff, written after a Golden State loss in Game 4 pushed the team to the brink of elimination?

At the very least, Durant’s absence that began back on May 8 is causing a mixture of confusion and angst among several of his teammates that simply can’t be helpful to their overall cause. Sources say there was a very real hope that Durant would be able to play in Game 4, to push through in much the same way that Thompson, Cousins, Iguodala and Looney have done of late. When that didn’t happen, and when they saw their season compromised more than ever without him after they’d grown hopeful of his return after seeing him on the court, the irritation grew in large part because they simply didn’t understand why he wasn’t there.

That was preceded by another report from The Athletic in which veteran Bay Area columnist Tim Kawakami attempted to take the pulse of the Warriors and offered this opinion:

There are hints that something changed somewhere in the last few days, maybe involving the recovery or the doctors or Durant’s decision-making process. ... The larger question: Has Durant fought to get back into action the way Thompson and Looney did for Game 4? It’s unclear. ...
It’s probably a bit cynical to even attempt to analyze. But just ask yourself this: If Thompson or Looney or Curry or Green or Andre Iguodala had this injury 30 days ago, would the Warriors still be waiting for them?

Before that, following a Golden State loss in Game 1, Yahoo Sports cited league sources in reporting that Durant was “expected to return” from his calf strain “at some point midway” through the Finals. Members of the Warriors’ organization were described as having “some optimism” that he could play in Game 3 but sensing “a stronger possibility that Game 4 is the most logical option.”

“The franchise, sources said, does not foresee a scenario in which Durant would be completely unavailable during the NBA Finals,” Yahoo Sports reported.

So while Durant was hoping for a return in Game 5, as he claimed Wednesday, some other members of Golden State apparently thought he might be able to come back sooner, and his failure to do so led to questions about his toughness and/or motivation to risk a worse injury on behalf of an organization he might be ready to bolt in free agency.

Just about the only things we know for certain are that Durant did indeed suffer a serious injury, one that may sideline him for the entirety of the upcoming season, and that he subsequently did leave Golden State for New York.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, the team to which Durant took his talents was the Brooklyn Nets.

“If I was leaving the Warriors, it was always going to be for the Nets,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “They got the pieces and a creative front office. I just like what they were building.”

Just after that momentous free agency news emerged, The Undefeated published comments from Kendrick Perkins in which the close friend and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate of Durant said that various slights from the Warriors over the past year “showed a lack of respect for one of the greatest players to put that uniform on and the fact that he took all that abuse and still put his career on the line to help them win.”

Perkins, who said at the time that he had just spoken on the phone with Durant, claimed that the latter played the past season with “one foot out the door” for an organization that was “taking him for granted.”

Durant showed that he wasn’t quite willing to take the high road when asked in the recent interview about the cheers some Toronto fans sent his way as he was being helped off the court in Game 5. While Durant claimed he didn’t remember hearing anyone celebrate his misfortune, he said of the Raptors — with what was described as a “smirk” — “It will probably be the last time they will be in the Finals."

That kind of jab was hardly out of character for Durant, who has proved more than willing to clap back via social media at critics both famous and obscure.

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Before the start of the NBA Finals, Durant feuded with Chris Broussard of Fox Sports, who asked before the Finals if a Warriors win without Durant would “diminish” the two rings he had earned with them. Broussard asserted that Durant’s “worst nightmare” was about to come to pass, given the scorn he had already endured for appearing to jump on Golden State’s bandwagon in 2016, when he joined a team coming off a record 73-win season.

“I see a little exaggeration there buddy, my worst nightmare??” Durant said to Broussard on Twitter. Two days later, he accused the longtime NBA reporter of lying about having occasionally “texted for two, three hours straight” with Durant.

Asked after that exchange why he so frequently jumps into online discussions about himself, Durant replied, “Because I have social media. I’m a human being with a social media account. I can see if I ventured off in, like, to politics or, like, culinary arts or music and give you my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.”

That awareness of what is being said about him was referenced in June, when Charles Barkley declared that the fault for Durant’s Achilles’ tear lay squarely with the Warriors.

“If you go back and look at the last two weeks — the article comes out, KD’s ‘worst nightmare’ that the Warriors are winning without him,” Barkley said. “Then you come out, you read the articles: the Warriors are really unhappy that KD won’t risk his Achilles’. They’re frustrated with KD.

“Now this man has to be feeling some type of way, so I blame the Warriors for KD getting hurt,” the basketball analyst and Hall of Famer continued. “They shouldn’t have put that man out there. You know how I know it? Because he blew out his Achilles'.”

To Barkley, it didn’t matter if Durant genuinely wanted to play and thought he was capable of it, Golden State should have acted in the best interest of its player.

“To put a guy who hasn’t played basketball in over a month into Game 5 of the Finals, and had some type of move-around the day before, I don’t think that’s fair to that man,” Barkley said. “That’s unfair to put him in that situation, and the proof is in the pudding, plain and simple.”

Until Wednesday, Durant had not publicly commented on his injury, or his decision to leave the Warriors.

“I still think about that night,” he said to Yahoo Sports about Game 5. “Every experience I’ve been through in the league is obviously always ingrained in my mind, but that one is definitely always going to be a huge part of my career, because it’s the biggest stage and the type of injury I had. But now I look at it as me just going out there playing basketball, and I happened to get hurt. And now I’m just waiting to get back.

“I know it’s a huge deal to everybody else, but I just try to take it on the chin and keep it moving.”

That may be, but Durant has frequently been less willing to let other things slide, even when the only injuries inflicted were to his pride. In that light, it seems reasonable to think that he was all too aware of what was being said about him as the Warriors anxiously awaited his return in the Finals, and that he eventually felt compelled to try to provide a response.

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