Entering last night’s fifth game of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors needed Kevin Durant. They faced elimination, trailing the Toronto Raptors three games to one in the best-of-seven series, and injuries had hampered them along the way. Durant himself had missed more than a month of the playoff run with what was termed a “calf strain,” but the team’s problems went beyond that. The shooting guard Klay Thompson had sat out Game 3 after hurting his hamstring. One center, Kevon Looney, was playing through a cartilage fracture in his chest, and another, DeMarcus Cousins, had torn his quadriceps muscle earlier in the postseason and could hardly jump. When Durant was cleared to play by team personnel yesterday afternoon, after rampant speculation about whether he’d return at all, the stage was set for the most straightforward type of sports heroism.
Things held to script for a while, with Durant netting three three-pointers and a pair of free throws in 12 minutes to stake Golden State to an early five-point lead. He looked cautious but able, the usual knifing patterns of his game replaced by a catch-and-shoot routine at which he is only slightly less effective. But early in the second quarter, trying a more complex dribbling maneuver, he fell to the floor and reached for his right heel. The game then split. On the court, the remaining Warriors gave up the lead before charging back to retake it in the closing minutes, extending their season by another game. Off the court, Durant was helped to the locker room, eventually leaving the arena on crutches and in a walking boot. In the hours that followed, the news was about as bad as it can be for a professional basketball player: He is thought to have torn his Achilles tendon.
Questions about the nature of Durant’s preexisting injury and his potential for further damage arose immediately, buttressed by more fundamental questions of motivation, influence, and pressure. “I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame,” said the Warriors general manager, Bob Myers, late last night, his voice cracking, “but I understand this world, and if you have to, you can blame me.” The minds of many basketball fans backtracked: to videos of Durant, in preceding days, with an ice pack closer to his heel than to his calf; to reports that some Golden State players were frustrated with his ongoing absence; to pundits calling his return the Warriors’ only chance at a championship.