OAKLAND, Calif. — He pulled his calf. He’s out for the series.
That’s what Steve Kerr assumed when he saw Kevin Durant crumple to the floor early in the second quarter of Game 5 on Monday. But an Achilles? “Never any thought,” says Kerr. “The weakest link in the chain back there, the kinetic chain, was the calf itself, and the risk was that he could tweak his calf again. That was the worst case.”
As Durant left the floor, helped off by Warriors trainer Rick Celebrini and Andre Iguodala, Kerr met with his assistants; they needed to adjust to Durant’s absence. It wasn’t until the coach entered the locker room at halftime that he realized the extent of the injury. “I walk in and I can see the looks on the faces of our team doctors and Rick and Bob [Myers] and I'm like, ‘Holy s--- is this an Achilles?'”
By Wednesday, it was official. Durant posted on Instagram, confirming the rupture and his successful surgery, writing “My road back starts now!” Durant’s positive tone notwithstanding, the news was crushing: For KD, the Warriors, the fans, these Finals. The severity and timing of the injury could also profoundly alter free agency, the balance of power in the league and, potentially, how teams and athletes approach injury risk.
The Warriors are still processing the events. After Game 5, the team gathered at The Chase restaurant in downtown Toronto. It was late, nearing 1 AM, and players, family, and friends spread out at tables. Kerr sat with the coaches and a few friends. Over wine and seafood, they talked about Durant. “Just trying to sort through our emotions,” says Kerr.
Meanwhile, the world weighed in. Athletes took to social media. Isiah Thomas wrote a column on NBA.com. Sports doctors hypothesized. Bob Myers became a focal point. Some lauded his emotional postgame news conference. Others took aim. At Myers. The trainers. The team. “I blame the Warriors for KD getting hurt,” Charles Barkley said on ESPN, “and I don’t care what they say about it.” The stakes, history, and Durant’s standing as arguably the best player in the game created a perfect media conflagration. Who was culpable? Who wasn’t?
Scenarios unspooled. What if Durant could play but hadn’t? What would the response be right now? Kerr has an idea. “If we hadn't played KD and lost the series people would have said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re not even going to play him and he's healthy enough to play, he's cleared by doctors?’ You’re going to get criticism, one way or the other.”
As he says this, Kerr sits in a coach’s office on the ground floor of Oracle on Wednesday, surrounded by artifacts of the Warriors’ run—a giant bottle of Grey Goose, champagne glasses, a black-and white water color of the coach painted by an eight-year-old fan. “I know that everyone has an opinion now, and Charles Barkley says we forced him to play or whatever. If we thought there was any chance of him tearing an Achilles, we wouldn’t have sent him out there. We were comfortable with the process and looking back, I'm not sure we would have done anything differently. But once you know the result, you go, ‘Goddam, can we have that one back?’ But you can't, so….” Kerr pauses, continues. “Ironically, we held Klay out of Game 3 last week and we were worried that if we played him he'd pull his hamstring worse so we didn’t play him and then [came] all these stories that we were too cautious. So what are you going to do?”
Initially, the plan was to play Durant in four- or five-minute stints Monday. Ultimately, the coaching staff decided to assess his fatigue as the game wore on. At the first timeout, with 7:11 left in the first quarter, Durant told Kerr, “I feel great, let me go another minute or two.” So Kerr kept him in, instead taking Durant out at the 5:50 mark. Two and a half minutes later, he returned, eventually playing 12 of the team’s first 14 minutes. Durant was limited but effective in the way only a seven-footer with his wingspan and skills can be. He put the ball on the floor a few times, walked into three three-pointers, and guarded Pascal Siakam, spending a fair amount of time on the weak side. “His minutes were not difficult minutes, his wind was fine,” says Kerr. Then, with 9:46 in the second, the injury.
Watching, many assumed, like Kerr, that it was Durant’s calf. Six weeks rehab. A blow for the Warriors in the series, and frustrating for Durant, but nothing on the order of an Achilles, which can take eight to 14 months of recovery time. How, or if, the injuries are related is unclear. Maybe a weakened calf led to a blowout. Maybe this was a fluke situation, independent of the previous strain. We may never know. The uncertainty is part of what’s destabilizing.
“We all share in this. It's not a good feeling obviously,” Kerr says. “Maybe the answer is that you become overly cautious to the point where you don't even let a guy on the floor even if he wants to come back.” He continues. “If this were the regular season, we would have waited another week or two.” He frowns. “One thing I know from my personal experience,” he says, referencing his back surgery, “Is that even though you'd like to believe that medicine is a science, we don’t know everything.”
It’s a sentiment that echoed often Wednesday after Warriors practice. “Everybody has great 20/20 hindsight,” Steph Curry said in his presser. “I trust our medical staff and know Bob Myers has our best interests in terms of not just what we can do in this series, but long term in our overall health…So you can waste time talking about the what-ifs and this and that. Injuries are tough and they suck. They're a part of our game.”
In other conversations with coaches and staffers, themes repeated. Sadness. Surprise. Frustration. (Myers didn’t speak publicly). But also an optimism about Thursday night, buoyed by what should be a deafening last-night-in-Oakland crowd and a veteran squad playing for an injured teammate. The Warriors knows the narrative can, and will change tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. For now, they focus on Game 6.