Warriors

Kevin Durant injury: Why it's unfair to question Warriors star's toughness

Kevin Durant injury: Why it's unfair to question Warriors star's toughness

TORONTO – I come in defense of Kevin Durant, and I realize this stance is unpopular in certain circles. It might help, though, that I’m bringing Klay Thompson with me.

In the age of social media insanity, where everyone is judged and everything they do is either “trash” or “fire” –- as if the vast gray space in between no longer exists –- Durant has been blasted for not disregarding medical experts and overruling Warriors management.

For not joining his teammates earlier in these NBA Finals, even if he barely could run from one heel to the other toe.

Haven’t you heard? It’s The Finals, for crying out loud, and KD should be out there. It’s only a calf strain. Look at some of his teammates. Andre Iguodala is playing despite a troublesome calf. Kevon Looney is playing with fractured cartilage in his ribcage. DeMarcus Cousins, who tore a quadriceps muscle in mid-April, fought to beat the initial prognosis and was back before June 1. Thompson is ignoring his own hamstring.

Durant, meanwhile, he has spent the first four games of The Finals offering tips, giving pep talks and leading cheers for a Warriors team that has lost three of four games.

The keyboard gangsters have spent the past few days feasting on Durant for his absence, calling him soft, saying he’s trying to prove something. Or that he’s leaving anyway, so he obviously does not care.

Truth is, unless you’ve been an elite athlete dealing with a soft tissue injury, you have no idea. Unless you’ve watched Durant work out, you can’t begin to understand how much basketball means to him. It’s his life. It has opened doors that would have been slammed in his face were he not one of the best players who ever lived.

Durant has spent the past week in quite the predicament, as Thompson explains.

“The hardest part about being an athlete is going through injuries, especially when your team is playing for a championship,” he said Sunday. “It sucks. I feel for Kevin. I know what type of competitor he is, and we obviously miss him dearly.”

Coping with injuries is hard, particularly for great players, because only they know how much their gifts are being compromised. I’ve been told by numerous people on the Warriors payroll –- some of whom have been critical of KD in the past –- that he has taken no shortcuts in his attempts to get back the court.

Injured basketball players don’t just wake up one day, bounce out of bed and sprint to the court. It’s a gradual process, requiring daily rehabilitation and recovery. With the Warriors, the process is overseen by Dr. Rick Celebrini, who joined the team last summer and has received rave reviews from every corner of the locker room.

Cousins, who spent the first half of the season rehabbing under the supervision of Celebrini: “He’s been great.”

Draymond Green, who has required maintenance on several body parts, on Celebrini: “I appreciate him. He explains what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He also listens.”

Apart from input from experts, athletes have to balance desire with common sense. All elite athletes want to perform, or they wouldn’t reach the highest levels of their potential. They have to deal with false impressions from the outside and, sometimes, skeptical minds on the inside.

“But injuries are the hardest part of sports,” Thompson explained. “You’ve just got to play through them – not play through them, but also manage the injury. It's tough. I went through it.

“Kevin's is much more serious than all of ours, and I know how badly he wants to be out there. He's one of the best competitors I've ever been around.”

[RELATED: Durant not playing Game 5 would ‘shock’ Jay Williams]

The expectation is that Durant will play in Game 5. Not because he finally wants to rejoin his teammates but because he has met the benchmarks that convince the medical staff and trainers that he is able to give it an honest try.

The only question Durant has to answer is one we all have: Can he be KD?

R.J. Hampton, LaMelo Ball making case to be Warriors' draft selection

R.J. Hampton, LaMelo Ball making case to be Warriors' draft selection

The Warriors are going to have a very high draft pick. That much seems obvious. What's less obvious is which prospects they might be zeroing in on as the missing piece of Golden State's next championship pursuit.

Some prospects like Memphis' James Wiseman, Georgia's Anthony Edwards and North Carolina's Cole Anthony are all stateside -- Golden State doesn't have to send scouts very far to get a glimpse of any of them.

Two other highly-rated prospects, however, require a far greater trek to evaluate them in person, as 18-year-olds LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton currently play in the NBL, Australia's top basketball league. Both players elected to go overseas for their final year of basketball before entering the NBA draft, rather than enroll in a collegiate program or join the G League.

Liam Santamaria is a writer and broadcaster for the NBL, and whereas the Warriors likely haven't had a ton of opportunities to see Ball and Hampton firsthand, Santamaria has had no such issues. So far, he has been blown away by what he has seen from the two young prospects.

"I've been not just impressed with the way they've played and the improvement that they've shown in their game over the course of the season thus far in Australia," Santamaria told NBC Sports Bay Area, "but also just how they've handled themselves on the court with their teammates, in the heat of battle in a professional situation like this."

The two phenoms currently find themselves in quite different scenarios. Ball, playing for the Illawarra Hawks, has far less talent around him than Hampton does on the New Zealand Breakers, where he plays alongside the likes of former NBA players, McDonald's All-Americans and foreign league MVPs. Consequently, Ball fittingly has the rock in his hands more often than Hampton does, which helps explains why Ball's stats are so comparatively eye-popping.

"While he hasn't been putting up the same kind of stat sheet-stuffing performances as LaMelo, I think he's actually been equally as impressive," Santamaria said of Hampton.

Both Ball and Hampton project as guards at the NBA level, but they're different kinds of players.

Ball has a knack for highlight-reel plays, but still needs to round out his game.

"He's obviously a phenomenally talented playmaker, and his feel for the game is incredible," Santamaria described Ball. "And we knew that coming in, but his game still is for the most part pretty raw."

Specifically, Ball's shooting mechanics and defense remain works in progress.

"When he arrived here in Australia and started playing, it looked like he'd never really been taught much of anything about how to defend," Santamaria recalled. "The fundamentals of 1-on-1 containment defense, but also fundamental concepts of playing defense off the ball, five guys defending as one ... just team defensive concepts. And that for me is the area that I think has probably undergone the most rapid improvement because he was almost nonexistent as a defender when he first stepped on Australian shores. Now you can see him taking some big strides in that regard. He's much more engaged at that end of the floor."

Hampton, on the other hand, is more refined at this stage of his young career and has what Santamaria described as better fundamentals than Ball currently possesses. 

"R.J. looks to me like he's a sure-fire certain thing, in terms of panning out to be a really productive pro," Santamaria summarized. "He has a great combination of size, length, athleticism, explosive quickness and basketball IQ."

As Ball and Hampton go through the draft process, they inevitably will be compared to other NBA stars, past and present. Santamaria has already begun that process.

"There's an element of Jason Kidd, for me," he said of Ball's comparison. "Where he just looks like he's got that thing on a string and makes those passes and plays look so easy." 

Santamaria added that Ball particularly reminds him of Kidd when handling the ball in the open court. Ironically, his comparison for Hampton involved another guard who has proven to be exceptional in the open court.

"He doesn't have the kind of strength and the kind of muscular frame yet that [Russell] Westbrook has, but when he gets that ball in the backcourt and starts pounding it, his head's on a swivel offensively and he's super quick attacking, putting heat on the rim," Santamaria said of Hampton. "In those situations, I see elements of Westbrook in his game. If he can become a little stronger and bounce off physicality like Westbrook does, I think that comparison might become more obvious over time."

As such, if the Warriors choose to draft another guard -- which seems unlikely, considering the presence of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, not to mention D'Angelo Russell -- it would appear they have a couple of fantastic prospects to choose from. If they come anywhere close to living up to Santamaria's lofty comparisons, they almost assuredly will have been worth the high draft selection.

[RELATED: Top NBA draft prospect LaMelo Ball is a big fan of Steph]

So, if push comes to shove, which one should the Warriors choose?

In formulating his answer, Santamaria mentioned yet another NBA MVP.

"Well, Bob Myers -- it depends if he's ready to swing for the fences, because LaMelo Ball is that swing-for-the-fences pick," he said. "Somebody's going to be brave enough to do it. I'm certainly not going to say he's going to be an NBA MVP at any point, but Giannis Antetokounmpo was a swing-for-the-fences pick a few years ago that a lot of teams decided they didn't want to or didn't have the courage to take. The Bucks did, and they have reaped the rewards. I think LaMelo Ball is going to fall into that category a little bit as well.

"If Myers and the organization have the courage to swing that bat, then he could very well be a home run."

The Warriors have long been expected to pursue Antetokounmpo if and when he hits free agency. There's no one quite like the Greek Freak, but perhaps Golden State ends up with its own version of him.

Warriors follow Draymond Green's lead in willing team to win vs. Bulls

Warriors follow Draymond Green's lead in willing team to win vs. Bulls

Throughout his career, Draymond Green simultaneously has been Golden State's emotional leader and one of its best players. 

On teams featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Green consistently was the team's emotional heartbeat, occasionally willing his squads to unforeseen victories in standout performances that didn't necessarily reflect on the stat sheet. 

The latest example of Green's impact came in the last 12 minutes of Friday's 100-98 win over the Bulls, when he passed, defended and guided the Warriors to their fifth win of the season. 

A glimpse of Green's impact came four seconds before the final frame began when Golden State coach Steve Kerr substituted Green for Jordan Poole. On the next play, Green switched onto Bulls guard Coby White, forcing an off-balance miss. Four minutes into the fourth quarter -- with Golden State down 89-84 -- he successfully contested a Tomas Satoransky jump shot, leading to a fastbreak opportunity. Four minutes later, Green received a pass from guard D'Angelo Russell, drove the lane and found center Willie Cauley Stein for a dunk. With a minute left and the game tied at 98, he found Glenn Robinson III for another lob dunk to help seal the victory. 

Green -- who finished with nine points, five rebounds and four steals -- was responsible for 10 of the team's 23 fourth-quarter points, helping the Warriors outscore Chicago by eight points in the final frame. 

"Our defensive pressure picked up," Green explained after the win. "I think down the stretch in games, you have to do that. There have been games this year where teams have put pressure on us and we didn't respond well. I think tonight we were the aggressors and it worked out in our favor."

"He made great plays down the stretch," Robinson said of Green. "He got down on the floor for loose balls. He got us going, his talk, his communication. You always want a player like that the floor, directing things."

Green's performance came at a particular time of peril for Golden State. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson out of the lineup, the Warriors are one of the league's worst teams. In their last four games entering Friday night, they had been outscored by 61 points, including a 106-91 blowout loss to Charlotte on Wednesday. 

[RELATED: Sources: Steph has surgery to remove pins from hand]

Worse, Green's play has followed suit. Over his previous nine appearances, he had shot just 38.5 percent from the field while dealing with a myriad of injuries. On Friday, both he and his team found their stride. 

"We played the whole game hard," Warriors forward Eric Paschall said. "I felt like as a team, that's a big step for us after the last two games. We felt like we didn't compete at a high level. I felt like it was real good for us just in terms of coming out with a win."

Golden State's season has been new territory for Green. Since entering the NBA, he has never missed the playoffs, but with the Warriors' star-studded cast out for an extended time, that streak is expected to end. That makes Friday's act of leadership all the more important going forward.