Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant, NBA, NBA Playoffs

Kevin Durant’s injury is a tragic vindication

If anyone could possibly relate to the cruelty Kevin Durant endured Monday night, it’s DeMarcus Cousins, who after Game 5 of the Finals candidly addressed those who questioned Durant’s toughness and commitment to the Warriors. “F*** them,” Cousins said. “F*** them.” A once detestable figure among NBA stars, Cousins has become a sympathetic one since tearing his Achilles’ tendon over a year ago — costing himself a max contract and the first playoff appearance of his career — and working his way back from a quad injury earlier this postseason.

Cousins is one of several NBA stars to have once been in Durant’s current position. Yet only Durant truly knows how much pain he had to endure by playing in Game 5 of the Finals after a month-long absence, or how close he really was to being fully healthy. And only Durant will have to pay the full price for playing through a strained calf and suffering what could be a devastating Achilles’ injury.

In his postgame press conference Monday night, Klay Thompson used the word “deflating” three times to describe his teammate’s situation. Steve Kerr called the Warriors’ 106-105 victory “an incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.” No matter what your perspective, both Thompson and Kerr are right. The Warriors are left to battle back from the brink of elimination without one of their two best players. Durant, one of the most talented and passionate basketball players in the world, is robbed of the ability to play on the biggest stage the NBA has to offer. Fans of the game are denied the joy of watching him play and a head-to-head matchup with Kawhi Leonard.

There’s no one truly at fault here, save for those who shamed Durant for not playing or jeered him as he toppled to the floor of Scotiabank Arena. Perhaps he felt pressure from within the team to play through injury; maybe the training staff cleared him to play when they shouldn’t have; Durant could have been lured by the desperation a 3-1 Finals deficit inspires; it may have been slightly irresponsible for him to push a calf injury before it fully healed.

Durant’s primary motivation for playing remains murky, but it doesn’t really matter. What does is that it could be a year before one of the best players ever, still in his prime, plays NBA basketball again. That the Warriors now have to grapple with losing that player (again) in the heat of a playoff series. That Durant jeopardized his health — and possibly his next contract — to help win another NBA title with a team for which he may not even play next season. Never mind the fact that the upcoming offseason may have to be recalibrated now that its most central figure is on the shelf. One can’t help but feel devastated for Durant, no matter how divisive he seems to have become since joining the Warriors.

Cousins is still feeling the effect injuries have taken on his body. Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas saw their careers permanently derailed by rushing back from injuries in the middle of playoff runs. Leonard, who forced his way out of San Antonio because of a disagreement with the Spurs’ training staff over the nature of his quad injury, currently has the Raptors on the brink of toppling the Warriors for just the second time in five seasons. Leonard took his share of admonishment from outsiders over his “load management” program this year. Now he’s playing the best basketball of his career and, most importantly, is healthy when the Raptors need him to be. Had Leonard rushed himself back last season or been overtaxed this year, he might have done irreparable damage to his career and cost himself the richest contract in NBA history. In the same way, Durant was tragically vindicated for sitting out, Leonard was proven wise for taking it slow.

Next: Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury changes everything

There is a line between painful wear-and-tear and injuries that pose a severe risk (several of Durant’s current teammates have pushed their own physical limits this postseason). But that line is for the player himself to find — not for outside bloviators to speculate on. Injuries can take different tolls on different people, and only those who experience them can fully know when their bodies feel right. Few, if any, NBA players milk ailments out of sheer laziness or spite — especially in the playoffs. If a player feels he can’t play, he shouldn’t, and few other voices should even have a say in the matter. Monday night could prove catastrophic to Durant’s career, or he could make a full recovery — his immeasurable talent overcoming any sort of physical limitations. To have to wonder at all is deflating for all involved.

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