TORONTO — Thirteen minutes past midnight, the wildest and saddest evening of the NBA season ended in tears. The wet and salty drops came from the eyes of Bob Myers, the Golden State Warriors president of basketball operations. They washed away the greatest, toughest and most reaffirming single victory of the Warriors’ dynastic run, revealing pain, regret and trepidation.
These tears, shed for Kevin Durant, accompanied some distressing news. Myers hesitated while delivering it. The words sat heavy on his tongue.
“Kevin,” he began softly during a postgame news conference in the early Tuesday morning hours, “it’s an Achilles injury.”
No, no, no.
Not Durant. Not this way.
Just 36 minutes earlier, the Warriors outlasted the Toronto Raptors and resisted elimination with a 106-105 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. But their championship mettle didn’t matter as much as the cruel ending to Durant’s valiant bid to return from a right calf injury and help the Warriors crawl out of a three-games-to-one hole. For 12 minutes of action Monday night, Durant was an energizing and game-altering presence, scoring 11 points, making three three-pointers, protecting the rim and looking surprisingly spry after 33 days of rest and rehab.
And then, he was on the floor, grabbing at the lower part of his right leg. For Durant, so much of this harrowing night symbolized his complicated journey over the past three years. From the moment he joined the Warriors and created one of the most overpowering teams in NBA history, his toughness and competitive desire has been questioned. His legacy has been debated. He has been scrutinized far beyond any other player of his stature, all because he exercised his right to be a free agent and chose to leave a good Oklahoma City team after nine seasons for a plug-and-play championship situation.
So it was disgustingly predictable that some fans would cheer his injury. When Durant and the Warriors are in sync, the game can seem unfair, and the vibe was shifting from the Raptors’ command of the series to the Warriors reestablishing their dominance. The cheers came out of the nervousness that Durant had made Golden State unbeatable again. It was inexcusable behavior, and thank goodness Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green were among the Raptors who quickly urged those fans to show some class. As Andre Iguodala and trainer Rick Celebrini guided the long-limbed 7-footer off the court, the mocking cheers turned into sincere chants of “KD! KD! KD!” But this isn’t the first time people have gotten carried away with their Durant envy.
It bothers Durant. At times, it makes him turn petty on social media. It contributes to his desire to keep his contracts short and his free agency options open year to year. He seems to be fighting a fight that he can’t win, no matter how much he wins. Nevertheless, he keeps hoopin’, and others keep hatin’. You can count on his game showing up.
Now, though, it’s gone for a while. The Warriors are expected to reveal MRI results for Durant on Tuesday, but Myers made it clear that the franchise fears a significant problem with the Achilles’ tendon. If those concerns are confirmed, everything changes. It has long been assumed that Durant is open to leaving Golden State this summer, but does this injury change that? Does Durant opt into the final year of his Warriors contract and take $31 million for the sake of security? Would the Warriors or any other team make a long-term contract offer to Durant knowing that could mean a highly paid year off? If Durant doesn’t bounce in free agency, who’s going to build a super team and how?
Those questions are endless. So are the ones that take the Warriors to task for how they handled Durant’s initial injury. Why did Coach Steve Kerr play him 12 of the game’s first 14 minutes just one day after he had been cleared to practice for the first time? What did it take for Durant to be cleared? How many doctors has he consulted in the past month? Was the initial injury truly a calf problem?
Myers did answer the latter.
“The initial injury was a calf injury,” he said. “This is not a calf injury. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury.”
Myers is willing to accept blame, even though he contends the Warriors were diligent in this process before Durant was cleared to play.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me,” Myers said.
Unless the Warriors bullied and shamed Durant into playing, I don’t think there’s ever going to be an easy way to assign blame. All indications are that Durant wanted to play. He was advised that he could play. He tried, and the worst thing happened. Sports can be cruel sometimes.
In an Instagram story posted after the game, Durant wrote: “I’m hurting deep in the soul right now I can’t lie but seeing my brothers get this win was like taking a shot of tequila, i got new life lol.”
If there’s a positive to glean from the misfortune, it’s that Durant should never be called soft ever again. He put his body on the line Monday night. Stephen Curry respected what Durant did so much that he walked to the locker room with Durant and the Warriors’ contingent. He did it even though he was in the game when Durant went down. He did it even though every possession mattered Monday night.
“Sometimes, the spirit tells you what to do,” Curry said of that decision.
The Warriors, playing on fumes, have a new inspiration.
“We do it for Kevin,” Klay Thompson said. “We do it for K.”
I don’t know that they can come all the way back in this series. The Warriors needed to make 20 of 42 three-pointers just to score 106 points. After Kawhi Leonard scored 10 straight points to give Toronto a 103-97 lead with 3:27 remaining, the Warriors used their will and the Splash Brothers to slip away with a victory.
The champagne was ready. Bill Russell was in the hallway. The city was preparing to burst. But Golden State pulled off what Draymond Green called it the “greatest” of his team’s highlight reel of victories.
The joy didn’t last long.
“It’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now,” Kerr said. “An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”
Just a few days ago, it was all good and frivolous to argue about what Durant means to the Warriors. Not anymore. Durant is down, and as Curry can attest, it’s hard to go back onto the court without him.
“He’s a warrior,” Thompson said of Durant.
And a Warrior, too. Durant complained recently about how he’s viewed as almost an independent contractor. “Kevin Durant and the Warriors,” he said, rolling his eyes at the divisive rhetoric.
Now, Durant embodies the fight within the Warriors. It probably won’t result in a third straight championship, but after witnessing what Durant sacrificed Monday night, that trophy won’t define this postseason.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer