Kevin Durant’s Disastrous Comeback

After Golden State’s star forward injured his Achilles tendon in the NBA Finals, the team’s decision to let him play is facing scrutiny.

Kevin Durant walks to the locker room during the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. (Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Kevin Durant sits on the court after an apparent injury during the second quarter in Game 5, against the Toronto Raptors, of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. (Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports)

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.

The invitation from Myers is easy to accept. The cleanest explanation is that the Warriors were not as careful as they should have been, or would have been under different circumstances; that their attention to their star player’s health existed in some kind of relation to the direness of their challenge. Complicating matters is the fact that Durant was due to be a free agent at year’s end—he may now opt to stay with the team while rehabbing his injury—which, in the cynic’s view, could have made the Warriors less invested in his long-term health. Myers recognizes that the cynic’s view will likely be the prevailing one. “The people that worked with [Durant] and cleared him are good people,” he said preemptively at the postgame presser. “They’re good people.”

The ramifications of Durant’s injury are extensive. The immediate effect is that, if his recovery spans the usual year-plus required of an Achilles injury, the NBA will be without one of its most exciting figures, with a guard’s handle and an all-time shooting stroke ludicrously packaged into a nearly 7-foot frame. His absence will alter the direction of the league this summer, as organizations lined up to pursue him in free agency will have to decide whether he’s worth the risk; predicted super teams may quickly become the stuff of alternative histories. The most frightening and humane worry is that Durant might never be the same again. A torn Achilles almost invariably leaves players lessened, robbing them of some measure of grace. The prospect is doubly sad when the player in question is one of the sport’s most graceful.

Durant’s injury is not the only aspect of these finals that illustrates the tensions between labor and management in professional sports. Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ star forward, was traded to the team last summer from the San Antonio Spurs, with whom he had feuded for the better part of a season over their handling of his own quadriceps injury; his team-leading turn in this year’s playoffs rebuffs those who would claim to understand his ailments better than he does. In the series’ third game, after the Toronto guard Kyle Lowry fell into the first row of seats chasing a loose ball, the Warriors’ part owner Mark Stevens reached over and pushed him. Lowry was rightly upset—less, it seemed, by the force of the shove than by the sense of entitlement that led to it, the implication that sitting courtside equates to some degree of ownership over players’ bodies.

After Game 5, the Warriors held to fallen-comrade sports cliché. “Prayers up to K.D.,” Stephen Curry said in a postgame interview. “He gave us what he could.” Klay Thompson praised Durant’s courage, saying, “For him to put his health on the line, to come back and compete at the highest level, he’s one of the best to ever do it.” Durant posted to Instagram after the game: “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.”

The comments were familiar, but moving; that is part of the power of sports, to make old sentiments annually new. It was surely the hope, in the hours before yesterday’s game, that Durant would join a lineage of hobbled comeback stories, players who gutted it out in a time of need. The question, in the days and weeks to come, will be whether the Warriors’ brass took the story too seriously and bought into it too much—if they forgot about, or disregarded, what happens to the player if it ends the wrong way.