Barber: Kevin Durant sacrifices himself for Warriors

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TORONTO - Warriors player Quinn Cook put his arm around coach Steve Kerr and leaned in close to say something as they left the court and disappeared behind a curtain. A bit later, Kerr and his first superstar, Stephen Curry, spoke in hushed tones before the media. Team president Bob Myers couldn’t even manage that. He broke down crying before answering the first question.

The Warriors were in mourning, almost immediately after securing what promises to be one of the most legendary wins in franchise history, a 106-105 comeback nail-biter in an NBA Finals elimination game, before a ravenous crowd convinced its team was about to dethrone a dynasty.

It was an incredible scene, one that could have been precipitated only by a stunning event. That event was an injury to Kevin Durant, the absolute worst-case scenario — other than a loss, of course — for a team that had been reinvigorated by his return after a month-long absence.

At 10:53 p.m. local time, as the Warriors desperately tried to close out the Raptors on the court, Durant left the locker room, and then arena, on a pair of crutches and wearing a walking boot on his right foot. After the game, Myers stated what some Twitter doctors had previously diagnosed. This wasn’t merely Durant re-straining his balky calf. It was an Achilles’ injury. Myers said an MRI exam on Tuesday will determine the extent of the damage.

Safe to say that Durant has played his final game of 2018-19, which is to say he may have played his final game as a Warrior. Hence the postgame pall, on a night that should have been filled with pride and joy.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Durant was sensational Monday night. He hadn’t played since limping off the Oracle Arena court on May 8, and hadn’t even practiced more than a couple times. But he hit all three 3-pointers he attempted in the first quarter, and helped the Warriors to a 34-28 lead they desperately needed to tamp down the emotions in the arena.

Durant wasn’t moving as much as usual. The Warriors weren’t asking him to. But his jump shot looked as flawless as ever.

The moment he fell to the floor was terrible, made worse by the fact that all of us had probably already imagined it. You know there’s a risk anytime a player comes back from an injury, and especially a muscle injury. You knew how much pressure Durant must have been feeling to return to action and help his teammates fight their way out of a 3-1 deficit.

And then it happened, with 9:49 on the clock in the second quarter. Durant dribbled against Toronto’s Serge Ibaka just outside the arc, and as Ibaka reached for the ball, Durant stopped moving. He fell to the floor and grabbed at his lower right leg, just as he had on May 8. In fact, he sat on nearly the exact same spot on the court that he had occupied that night in Oracle.

“Yeah, it was,” Warriors center Jordan Bell would lament later. “That’s crazy.”

The precise diagnosis will come soon. It hardly mattered in that moment. Everyone knew that Durant was done for the series, that he had come back too soon or pushed himself too hard in the pursuit of a third straight championship.

“Kevin like a big brother to me, so it kind of felt like my older brother, Josh Bell, he tore his ACL,” Bell told me in the locker room. “It’s probably the worst thing about sports.”

Cook, Durant’s friend from years back in Washington D.C., was first off the bench to reach Durant. As the injured star sat helpless, some Toronto fans cheered and waved goodbye at him. The moment will live in infamy. Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, two Raptors veterans, sensed what was happening and waved their arms to quiet the crowd. Ibaka joined them.

Teammates helped Durant off the court. He looked more shocked than anything, like he simply couldn’t believe this was happening to him, to a man whose athletic career has mostly been one achievement stacked upon others, and lately had resulted in back-to-back NBA Finals MVP awards.

The better instincts of the crowd took over, and the fans chanted “KD!” as he disappeared into the tunnel.

Huge questions are floating over this organization and its medical protocols. It’s entirely possible that nobody did anything wrong — that this was simply a hard-to-heal calf injury that was succeeded by an Achilles’ injury, and that no one could have seen it coming.

But the calf saga was strange all along. Early reports made it sound as though Durant might be back after missing a game or two. Then it lingered on for weeks, with Durant constantly in day-to-day status. More than once, Kerr said he expected Durant to work out with the team, only to have that benchmark moved back. At times, Kerr and Warriors director of sports medicine and performance Rick Celebrini seemed to be on different pages. Or was it Kerr and Myers? Or was it Celebrini and Durant? Or Durant’s handlers?

Those knots are still to be untangled. But one thing is clearer than ever. Kevin Durant is a fierce competitor and a loyal teammate, and shame on anyone who doubted that.

Durant has always seemed both a part of, and apart from, the rest of the Warriors. It has to do with his personality. But it also has to do with the fact that the Warriors were great before he got here, that he knew he’d never be as beloved as Curry in the Bay Area, or even as adored as Thompson or Draymond Green. Durant can be aloof at times, and his failure to explicitly commit to the Warriors beyond this year chapped some fans.

But it was a mistake to take that distance and expand it into a belief that Durant was babying his injury. Some people saw Thompson return to action after tweaking his hamstring, saw Kevon Looney make his way onto the court after fracturing cartilage in his freakin’ chest, and wondered how Durant’s skinny calf could keep him on the bench.

Now we know. Now we know how tender Durant’s leg must have been when he tipped off against Ibaka to start Game 5. Now we know how vulnerable he was to re-injury. Now we know how much it meant to him to join his Warriors teammates in battling these relentless Raptors.

“He’s one of the most misunderstood people,” Myers said through tears. “He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person. It’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”

And we’re all lucky to have seen Durant play in Oakland. The Warriors’ run isn’t over yet. They played like champions and lived to fight another day. But Durant’s time with the Warriors might be coming to an end. He will resolve that question this summer, when he signs his next contract. But Shaun Livingston, one of the Golden State veterans, was ready to pronounce Durant’s legacy in the Bay Area.

“He’s always gonna be a part of what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished, because we wouldn’t have done it without him,” Livingston said. “He’ll always be welcome in the Bay, regardless. He doesn’t owe us anything.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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