TORONTO -- When a superstar crumples to the floor like that, after everything he’d been through, after mustering the will to return to action, after giving his team the lift it so desperately needed in a win-or-go-home game, everything that happens next is muted: The flow of a tense game, the pulsating fourth quarter, even the Warriors’ inspired Game 5 victory in the final seconds.
All that’s left is a siren blaring and asking … Why?
Why did the Golden State Warriors clear Kevin Durant to return to the NBA Finals on Monday?
Why did he feel compelled to do so after missing nearly a month with a calf strain?
Why did a segment of the basketball populace question the severity of his injury -- and, by extension, his heart -- during the lead-up?
And why do the basketball Gods seem to have it in for a two-time Finals MVP and all-time great who put his team first, and possibly just put his career in jeopardy?
The Raptors fans who lined up 24 hours early in the rain just to watch on TV outside Scotiabank Arena aren’t shook. The citizens who braced for a championship celebration into the wee hours and now must deal with deflation aren’t shook. Not even the Raptors, who coughed up a six-point lead with roughly 3 1/2 minutes left and now must fly 3,000 miles for another tip.
No, it’s the Warriors who were left dazed and confused despite extending the series to another game with the 106-105 victory, and it was all captured in the quivering voice of team president Bob Myers while revealing Durant suffered an Achilles injury early in the second quarter.
“He’s a good teammate,” Myers finally managed to say. “He’s a good person … it’s not fair … he just wants to play basketball and right now he can’t.”
No, he can’t, and Tuesday's MRI will determine when that can happen again. Slow-motion TV replays that showed Durant executing a dribble move past Serge Ibaka and then dropping quickly to the floor were not positive. When Durant grabbed his leg on May 8, he reached high on his calf. This time, he reached low.
A segment of the fans initially cheered Durant’s misfortune, and when Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka put them in check, the reaction quickly flipped from insensitive to respectful. But it didn’t matter in the big picture that they applauded Durant. He was helped to the locker room by director of sports medicine and performance Rick Celebrini and Andre Iguodala. Stephen Curry left the bench and walked behind Durant, consoling him. Durant cursed loudly as he reached the tunnel. Then he disappeared from view and later left the arena by crutches right after halftime.
In the history of The Finals, there was no tougher scene to witness, no matter the rooting interest. This was a basketball betrayal, pure and simple, that happened to Durant. But should it have?
Plenty of questions now surround the medical protocol used by the Warriors. Durant took part in what was loosely termed a practice for the first time just a day earlier. Was that enough? Did he pass all the stress tests by then? Did the exams and MRIs give a green light? Were the experts fully apprised? And, perhaps most crucially, how much of this Achilles injury could be directly related to the calf injury and should that have been perhaps a larger concern?
“He went through four weeks with a medical team and it was thorough and we felt good about the process," Myers insisted. "He was cleared to play tonight, that was a collaborative decision. I don’t believe there is anyone to blame, but I understand in this world that if you have to, you can blame me.”
Beyond that, was there any pressure -- either implied or indirectly placed or discreetly suggested -- within the organization for Durant to return and rescue the Warriors? They were down 3-1 without him. Durant is famously sensitive about how he’s perceived, especially regarding his toughness. Maybe he felt pressure himself to quiet the noise and whispers.
Everybody gets so wrapped up in chasing championships, but life is more important."
Complicating matters is his pending free agency. Durant stood to make hundreds of millions on the market this summer, and a torn Achilles, if that’s what the MRI will show, can require a year to rehab.
In the moment, Durant's injury had a temporary bonding effect between the two teams; a handful of Toronto players approached Durant before he checked out and both benches appeared equally stunned.
“In this league,” explained Lowry, “we’re all brothers, and it’s a small brotherhood and you never want to see a competitor like him go down.”
Before the injury, Durant showed flashes of the next-level skills that helped him lead the Warriors to the last two championships. He hit his first two shots, both from deep. He commanded coverage from Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s best defender. He had a presence. This injected confidence within the Warriors, who broke out a nine-point lead with Durant on the floor and seized early command.
He, Curry and Thompson were 12-for-19 shooting for 36 points through the early second quarter. With their missing star in the fold for the first time this series, Golden State looked whole again.
Once Durant left the floor, the game tightened until the fourth. Leonard (26 points), who shot poorly to that point, made his move, with 10 quick points to send a quake through the arena. Curiously, Raptors coach Nick Nurse called consecutive timeouts with his team buzzing and up six with 3 minutes, 5 seconds left. Did that kill the momentum?
Curry and Thompson answered with consecutive 3-pointers to tie and then take the lead with 56 seconds left. Then, on Toronto’s final possession, Thompson and Andre Iguodala trapped Leonard and forced him to surrender the ball. It found its way to Lowry, deep in the corner. But Draymond Green got his fingertips on the ball, Lowry’s shot was harmless and the buzzer sounded. No confetti fell from the ceiling, no bottles were popped in the home locker room, no trophy was ceremoniously awarded.
Curry and Thompson combined for 57 points and took 27 3-pointers, making 12. They’ll need to duplicate that production Thursday in Oakland and beyond if the Warriors force a Game 7. DeMarcus Cousins was helpful post-Durant and had 14 points.
“They’ve accomplished so much over the years and that doesn’t happen just with talent,” Kerr said. “There has to be more that goes into it and it’s that fight, that competitive desire and ability to stay poised under pressure. It was brilliant to watch.”
And yet: There was little joy.
“It’s hard to even celebrate this win,” said Klay Thompson.
“I told the team I didn’t know what to say because, on one hand I’m so proud of them for the amazing heart and grit they showed, and on the other I’m just devastated for Kevin," Kerr said. "So it’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now.”
It’s a reflex to say the Warriors were inspired by Durant and perhaps they were. When he fell, they had their excuse, yet thought otherwise. For them to play the final 2 1/2 quarters while dealing with a fractured state of mind says plenty about their mental toughness.
“It had made it difficult, especially with the start we got off to and Kevin was playing so well, so it was a real shock when he went down,” said Kerr. “So I give our guys credit.”
Durant at times became a magnet for his personality quirks and especially his non-commitment regarding free agency; it was even raised by Green when the two infamously clashed on the bench earlier this season. If nothing else, the injury further endeared Durant to the locker room and, in particular, to his fellow MVP.
“Everybody gets so wrapped up in chasing championships, but life is more important in terms of caring about an individual and what they’re going through,” Curry said. “And you see the commitment and the challenges and just what has been thrown at KD this whole year, really. He gave us what he had, he went out there and sacrificed his body and we know how that turned out.
“When you get to know somebody and see how genuine they are and how committed they are to basketball, you root for those type of guys. All those emotions come into play when you see him go down like that. It’s not even about this series; it’s about long term, his mindset and being able to get back to being the player and the person he has shown consistently over the course of his career.”
The Warriors return to Oracle Arena for the final game in the old barn before moving to the Chase Center in San Francisco next season. That means there is motivation to shut the building down in style. Of course, there’s the goal of forcing Game 7, and finally, to win a title so Durant’s injury won’t be in vain.
“We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said. “He wants us to compete and the highest level, and we’ll think of him every time we step on the hardwood. You think of him every time you dive for a loose ball or go for a rebound, because I know him and I know how bad he wants to be out there. I’m going to miss him, man. It’s not the same being out there without him.”
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