What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt discuss reaction to Kevin Durant’s Achillies injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. USA TODAY
TORONTO – Rarely is an NBA Finals victory as subdued as Golden State’s Game 5 win over Toronto on Monday.
But rarely does an NBA Finals game see a devastating injury to one of the game’s stars.
Now what for Kevin Durant?
His latest injury sustained in Golden State’s win – and the concern is that it’s an Achilles tear – could have a ripple effect not only on Durant and Golden State’s prospects of winning a third consecutive NBA championship, but on Durant’s future, free agency this summer, the 2019-20 season and the NBA record books.
The implications are far, wide and deep.
The extent of the injury won’t be known until the Warriors get results of an MRI scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. But there is a clinical exam called the Simmonds-Thompson test which doctors and athletic trainers use to test for an Achilles rupture, according to certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts.
While the Warriors wait for the MRI, they fear the worst. Late Monday night, emotional Warriors general manager Bob Myers had trouble getting words out in defense of Durant and his desire to get back on the court following the strained calf he sustained on May 8 against Houston in the Western Conference semifinals.
Durant’s immediate future
If those worst fears are confirmed, Durant will likely miss next season. Achilles ruptures are not all that common, at least compared to other serious injuries such as torn anterior cruciate ligaments in the knee. Though there have been some serious Achilles injuries across the NBA in recent years, including ones sustained by big-name players: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Jennings, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and now Durant.
The NBA is looking closely at Achilles injuries because of the potential impact they have on a player’s long-term career. The league doesn’t have a large sample size to study, but it does know the structure of the tendon changes over time and could become more susceptible to a rupture. The NBA is trying to figure out why it happens to some players and not others.
Regardless, it’s an injury that likely sidelines a player for a season and can have an impact on that player’s future. Cousins, who sustained his Achilles rupture in 2018, missed the equivalent of a full season – half of one season, half of another – and then sustained a quadriceps injury 32 games after returning.
The rehab is long and grueling, and there is concern the player will never be the same.
The here and now for Golden State
The Warriors were down 3-1 in the Finals against the Raptors before Durant’s brief return in Game 5. In his short time on the court – 11 minutes, 57 seconds – Durant scored 11 points and made all three 3-pointers he attempted. He helped Golden State to an early 39-34 lead at the time of his injury, and the Warriors extended their advantage to 52-39.
Durant helped Golden State win, and you can argue that if he hadn’t played in Game 5, the series would be over and the Raptors would be celebrating their first NBA championship. His early scoring was necessary for the Warriors to force a sixth game.
Without Durant for the rest of the series, the Warriors have to deal with the emotions of losing a star while combatting the relentless Raptors. Golden State had a 77-63 lead in the third quarter, lost the lead and needed a 9-2 run to close out the game and win by a point.
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Coming back from a 3-1 deficit is difficult under any circumstances. Doing it under these circumstances seems particularly arduous. Teams with a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals are 33-1 and just three times have those series been forced to a Game 7.
There are also potential repercussions for the Warriors’ medical and athletic training staff who cleared Durant to play. Don’t forget, Chelsea Lane, a highly-respected performance therapist, left the Warriors after last season for a similar job with the Atlanta Hawks. Myers said no one is to blame, but should Durant have played?
Durant and free agency
This summer will change the NBA landscape for at least the next few seasons. Durant can be a free agent along with other stars: Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton.
Who will play where and with whom has been a focal point of this NBA season. What Durant decides to do will impact what other players decide to do. His injury already alters the 2019-20 season.
Durant has options. He doesn’t have to become a free agent. He can choose to opt in to the final year of his contract with the Warriors at $31.5 million and become a free agent in the summer of 2020. How Durant feels about how Golden State handled his injury may play a role, too.
If he decides to become a free agent, he will have suitors who will offer him a max contract despite the fact he will likely miss next season if it’s a ruptured Achilles. That possibly jeopardizes the idea of Durant teaming up with another star – perhaps Irving with one of the New York teams.
If free agency wasn’t going to be hectic enough, this throws another unknown into the equation.
Durant in the record books
Durant will turn 31 on Sept. 29 – still in the prime of his career age-wise. But he is on the verge of losing a season of his prime to injury. Durant is one of the NBA’s all-time great scorers, a versatile 6-11 forward who can get his shot anytime, at any spot on the court.
He is No. 31 on the league’s all-time scoring list and was – before the injury – two seasons away from moving close to the top 15. At 29, he became the second-youngest player to reach 20,000 career points. There are few players who have ever scored with skill and grace like Durant.
With a long and healthy career, Durant has a chance at passing Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
While passing Abdul-Jabbar is difficult for any player – LeBron James has a chance, too – Durant’s prospects take a hit if his injury is as serious as it’s feared to be.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt