Few NBA careers have been as eventful as Kevin Durant’s past two months. During the 2019 NBA playoffs, Durant has been described as the undisputed best player in the world, a superfluous cog in Golden State’s system, an outright detriment to that system, a me-first baby (just asking questions), the bravest Warrior of them all, and a casualty of our win-at-all-costs sports culture. On Wednesday, Durant confirmed on Instagram that he’d ruptured his Achilles tendon after returning from a calf injury to (briefly) take the court in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. In the caption, he said that it was “just the way things go in this game,” as if each of the league’s 500 or so players are destined to follow this unprecedented course.
When Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State in 2016, he made a fraught career move sound incredibly simple. Durant wrote in the Players’ Tribune that the “primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player.” Team and individual success followed immediately, and Durant was named the Finals MVP in both 2017 and 2018. But Golden State’s back-to-back titles, and Durant’s on-court brilliance, were never seen as evidence of growth. Rather, they were perceived as an inevitability. Of course the league’s best team was going to win big after adding the league’s most talented scorer. Of course the league’s most talented scorer was going to benefit from playing on the league’s best team.
Durant and his teammates have always resented the perception that they had it easy. At the same time, it wasn’t that long ago that the Warriors star was hyping his own indomitability. After Golden State blew a 31-point lead in Game 2 of its first-round matchup against the Clippers—a game in which Durant took only eight shots—he shrugged off the idea that he needed to get into a personal duel with the Clippers’ diminutive and feisty point guard Patrick Beverley. “I’m Kevin Durant,” he said. “You know who I am.”
Not long after those words came out of his mouth, everyone started to lose track of who, exactly, Kevin Durant is.
First, Durant went on a breathtaking offensive tear, averaging 38.8 points per contest over the next eight games. It was midway through this run that Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said, “He’s the best player in the world—most skilled player in the world.”
Then came the calf injury in Game 5 of the second round against the Houston Rockets. The Warriors had blown a 2–0 second-round series lead, and Golden State’s fortunes turned around as soon as “the best player in the world” was off the floor. Steph Curry excelled without his running mate, and, after taking care of business against the Rockets in six games, Golden State swept Portland with joyous abandon.
Golden State’s players flatly denied that their improved play was due to Durant’s absence (and they were asked about it a lot), but it was clear that something had changed. What this said about Durant was open to interpretation. With him on the sidelines, there were no definitive answers.
Those answers wouldn’t come in the Finals, either. For as good as the team looked against Portland, the Durant-less Warriors Classic™ was overmatched in its first four games against Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors. Were it not for a furious third-quarter run in Game 2, Golden State would have been staring down the bristly end of the broom and a humiliating series sweep. Just weeks after being declared a luxury add-on, Durant’s importance to Golden State was once again put into stark relief. Following a month on the sidelines, Durant wanted to help his team turn around a 3–1 deficit and, at the very least, stave off elimination for just one more game. It wound up being the second-most-consequential decision of his basketball career.
Durant’s rescue mission ended when his Achilles snapped after little more than one quarter of play. The Warriors are now in the midst of a frantic game of who’s-to-blame hot potato, even after Durant made it clear in his hospital gurney Instagram post that “I wanted to be out there that night because that’s what I do.”
The 2019 postseason began with Durant defiantly telling the world who he is. He and the Warriors were a given, but, in the course of a tumultuous few months, their inevitability has been replaced by uncertainty and innuendo. Will this series end with a Warriors miracle or a Raptors coronation? Can we expect Durant to be the same player after a recovery process that will reportedly sideline him for the entirety of the next season? And what jersey will he be wearing when he makes his return?
“It’s going to be a journey,” Durant said in Wednesday’s Instagram post. If the past two months are any indication, there’s no use in guessing how it will end.