TORONTO – I come in defense of Kevin Durant, and I realize this stance is unpopular in certain circles. It might help, though, that I'm bringing Klay Thompson with me.
In the age of social media insanity, where everyone is judged and everything they do is either "trash" or "fire" –- as if the vast gray space in between no longer exists –- Durant has been blasted for not disregarding medical experts and overruling Warriors management.
For not joining his teammates earlier in these NBA Finals, even if he barely could run from one heel to the other toe.
Haven't you heard? It's The Finals, for crying out loud, and KD should be out there. It's only a calf strain. Look at some of his teammates. Andre Iguodala is playing despite a troublesome calf. Kevon Looney is playing with fractured cartilage in his ribcage. DeMarcus Cousins, who tore a quadriceps muscle in mid-April, fought to beat the initial prognosis and was back before June 1. Thompson is ignoring his own hamstring.
Durant, meanwhile, he has spent the first four games of The Finals offering tips, giving pep talks and leading cheers for a Warriors team that has lost three of four games.
The keyboard gangsters have spent the past few days feasting on Durant for his absence, calling him soft, saying he's trying to prove something. Or that he's leaving anyway, so he obviously does not care.
Truth is, unless you've been an elite athlete dealing with a soft tissue injury, you have no idea. Unless you've watched Durant work out, you can't begin to understand how much basketball means to him. It's his life. It has opened doors that would have been slammed in his face were he not one of the best players who ever lived.
Durant has spent the past week in quite the predicament, as Thompson explains.
"The hardest part about being an athlete is going through injuries, especially when your team is playing for a championship," he said Sunday. "It sucks. I feel for Kevin. I know what type of competitor he is, and we obviously miss him dearly."
Coping with injuries is hard, particularly for great players, because only they know how much their gifts are being compromised. I've been told by numerous people on the Warriors payroll –- some of whom have been critical of KD in the past –- that he has taken no shortcuts in his attempts to get back the court.
Injured basketball players don't just wake up one day, bounce out of bed and sprint to the court. It's a gradual process, requiring daily rehabilitation and recovery. With the Warriors, the process is overseen by Dr. Rick Celebrini, who joined the team last summer and has received rave reviews from every corner of the locker room.
Cousins, who spent the first half of the season rehabbing under the supervision of Celebrini: "He's been great."
Draymond Green, who has required maintenance on several body parts, on Celebrini: "I appreciate him. He explains what he's doing and why he's doing it. He also listens."
Apart from input from experts, athletes have to balance desire with common sense. All elite athletes want to perform, or they wouldn't reach the highest levels of their potential. They have to deal with false impressions from the outside and, sometimes, skeptical minds on the inside.
"But injuries are the hardest part of sports," Thompson explained. "You've just got to play through them – not play through them, but also manage the injury. It's tough. I went through it.
"Kevin's is much more serious than all of ours, and I know how badly he wants to be out there. He's one of the best competitors I've ever been around."
The expectation is that Durant will play in Game 5. Not because he finally wants to rejoin his teammates but because he has met the benchmarks that convince the medical staff and trainers that he is able to give it an honest try.
The only question Durant has to answer is one we all have: Can he be KD?