TORONTO -- When Kevin Durant went down grabbing his right Achilles tendon early in the second quarter of Game 5, Scotiabank Arena fans didn’t seem to know what to do.
First, they cheered for the injury, mocking the Finals MVP as he laid on the floor in pain. But Raptors players Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry immediately motioned for the crowd to quiet down in solidarity of a fellow player. The arena quickly fell to a deafening silence. Then, they cheered for the human being on the ground.
“K-D, K-D,” the home crowd shouted as Durant limped off the floor under the assistance of Warriors director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini.
It was a confusing, perplexing and bizarre turn of events. Medical and performance sources around the league that spoke with NBCSports.com were just as befuddled as those sitting in Scotiabank Arena.
“This,” one longtime NBA trainer said, “is just unheard of.”
To be clear, the Warriors have the most information in this situation, both medically and personally. They have access to Durant’s medicals over the last three years. In consultation with Durant after the morning shootaround, the team decided to clear him ahead of Monday’s Game 5, the first time he’d suit up to play since May 8 when he suffered what the team called a mild calf strain. The team repeatedly denied it was an Achilles injury despite public speculation.
But Durant still hurt his Achilles on Monday night. Every time a player ties up his shoelaces and plays in an NBA game, he is exposing himself to injury. Perhaps this was a fluke play that could not have been prevented, no matter the precautions.
But this statistic was repeated by multiple league sources outside the Warriors organization to NBCSports.com: 12 of 14. As in, Durant’s workload, playing 12 of the first 14 minutes of a Finals game after not playing a game in over a month due to a soft tissue injury.
Durant’s minutes stunned many across the league who expected Durant to play “short bursts,” as coach Steve Kerr said just before the game.
However, Durant played the first 6:11 of the game but did not remain on the bench for the rest of the quarter. Instead, he re-entered the game at the 3:33 mark and played the rest of the first quarter. He finished with 11 points, more than any player in the game not named Stephen Curry.
Rather than sit Durant for the start of the second quarter and buy some extra time, Durant started the frame alongside three bench players and Klay Thompson. Draymond Green and Stephen Curry sat after playing the entire first quarter. And then, Durant’s leg buckled on a non-contact play.
“Just seems unacceptable,” said one longtime director of performance. “Doesn’t make any sense.”
Said another rival training staff member: “They may have said, once the leg is warm, ride it. But I can’t imagine (Durant) did enough work to determine 12 minutes out of 14 was appropriate.”
Did Kerr play Durant too much, too soon? Did they stick with Durant an extra few minutes because he was playing so well?
These are reasonable questions, especially when the stakes are so high. Internally, some Warriors staffers felt that being second-guessed on this injury is fair in this industry; it’s impossible to have all the answers.
Some insiders around the league feel that the Warriors’ medical staff has been overwhelmed by injuries this postseason. Durant, Curry (dislocated finger), Thompson (hamstring), Iguodala (calf), DeMarcus Cousins (quad) and Kevon Looney (chest/shoulder) have all suffered injuries during what is this team’s fifth Finals run. Many around the league see that as plain old bad luck. Others believe medical staffs shouldn’t be absolved from scrutiny while players, coaches, front offices and ownership groups are nationally and locally criticized on a regular basis.
As for the circumstances around the Durant injury, sources told NBCSports.com that the plan going into the game was to take Durant out when he felt tired. However, that didn’t happen as early as they expected going into the game. Durant hadn’t shown any signs of fatigue and, according to sources close to the situation, the decision to play more minutes was described as a collaborative one, agreed to by both Durant and the medical staff.
This medical staff is a new one by league standards. The Warriors have undergone significant changes to their medical staff in recent seasons, which is a bit unusual for a dynasty. Celebrini, a highly-regarded physiotherapist from MLS circles, replaced Chelsea Lane as the director of sports medicine last year. Lane left the Warriors last summer to lead the Atlanta Hawks' medical staff. Before Lane, the team parted ways with its former director of sports medicine, Lachlan Penfold, after just one season. Keke Lyles, who helped the Warriors with the 2015 NBA Finals as the team’s director of player performance, left that summer to join the Hawks in a similar position.
That’s a lot of new faces. And a lot of winning, nonetheless.
But is the current medical staff at fault? Golden State general manager Bob Myers got out in front and pointed the finger at himself during an emotional impromptu postgame press conference.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to (blame someone), you can blame me,” said Myers fighting back tears.
“He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him. I don’t know -- I don’t have all the information on what really the extent of what it all means until we get a MRI, but the people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”
Myers then reiterated that the initial injury suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston was indeed a calf strain.
“This is not a calf injury,” Myers said. “I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury.”
You don’t have to have a medical degree to see how a calf strain and an Achilles injury to the same leg may be related. Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer and operator of injury tracker InStreetClothes.com, explained earlier this month why calf strains are so tricky.
“The calf is not an isolated muscle but a dynamic muscle complex,” Stotts wrote. “Playing through a strained calf can increase the chances of a secondary injury occurring somewhere else along the kinetic chain. The hamstring muscle group is particularly susceptible to injury when the calf is limited due to their synergistic relationship.”
In this case, Durant’s hamstring was fine; it was the Achilles that broke down. Multiple sources around the league have long believed that Durant’s initial injury in May was consistent with a partial Achilles tear, which would explain why Durant needed more than a month to get back onto the court. Mild calf strains usually take a week or two to return to play, not more than a month.
Durant’s timetable to return has been a moving target. After Game 3 against Portland on May 16, about a week after the initial injury, NBCSports Bay Area’s Monte Poole asked Kerr for his reaction to the news that Durant would be re-evaluated the following week. Kerr acknowledged that the team had underestimated the severity of the injury.
“It’s a little more serious than we thought at the very beginning,” Kerr said. “So we’ll see where it all goes. But he’s in there all day long getting treatment. He’s done a great job committing himself to that process. Rick (Celebrini) and his staff are in there all day. Hopefully, he’ll be back at some point.”
That point happened to arrive at an opportune time. Down 3-1, a loss away from the season ending, the Warriors announced that Durant would start Game 5 in Toronto just minutes before tipoff.
The Warriors have been declarative throughout this process that this was not an Achilles injury. The injury suffered on Monday night is something new.
“It sucks, man,” Curry said after the game. “Not much else to say about it.”
Making matters more complicated was that Durant was absolutely sensational in his time on the floor. He showed almost no rust, scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes, making three 3-pointers and not even touching the rim on his field goal attempts and free throws in the first quarter.
But those good feelings came to a crashing halt. Durant left the game with a five-point lead and Curry followed to the locker room, along with Andre Iguodala, the team trainer and Myers.
The team quickly rallied and jumped out to a 13-point lead with 6:05 remaining in the first half. Curry finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while Thompson scored 26 points of his own. Green was two assists short of notching a triple-double. Cousins did his part, scoring 14 points off the bench after not playing the first 14 minutes of the game, appearing out of the rotation before the Durant injury.
Before the game ended, Durant was seen leaving on crutches in a walking boot on his right leg. He posted on Instagram shortly after the game.
“Dub nation gonna be loud as f*** for Game 6,” Durant posted late Monday night. “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. #dubs”
Durant can be a free agent this summer if he opts out of his contract. He holds a $31.5 million player option for next season, which becomes an intriguing option if he has indeed ruptured his Achilles. Though many speculated that Durant has already decided to leave the Warriors this offseason, there are three reasons why he might be inclined to return.
For one, the Warriors have just successfully rehabbed one superstar back from an Achilles tear in Cousins, who is contributing at the highest level of the game. Secondly, outside organizations would have to build Durant’s trust and medical information from scratch. In that sense, the Warriors are operating in a position of informational strength compared to teams outside the Bay. Lastly, exercising the player option and revisiting next summer may be the most stress-free option at his disposal.
Undoubtedly, if Durant misses next season with an Achilles tear, it would cause a seismic shift in free agency and the landscape of the league as a whole. Durant was considered by many to be the top free agent available this summer in a loaded free agency class potentially featuring Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and other stars.
Just as it was for Cousins, Durant’s rehabilitation from an Achilles injury will require attention to the smallest of details and tremendous mental strength. Weight loss is a strong positive indicator of rehab success from Achilles tears, but that will be tough in the case of Durant, who is as thin as they come in the NBA.
But for now, the Warriors fly back home to the Bay for Game 6 and wait for the MRI results scheduled for Tuesday. The Warriors organization is aching despite an incredible series-saving win on the road. They are fearing the worst as are medical sources around the league who watched from afar. But by rallying around Durant, the Warriors fought back to extend the series.
“We’re going to give everything we got,” Curry said of Game 6.
The champs may be hurting, but they got new life. The entire NBA waits to see what happens now.