TORONTO – Kevin Durant was giddy in the hours before Game 5 of the NBA Finals, feeling no pain in his right calf and dancing among his teammates in the hallway. After 32 days locked away with doctors and trainers while outsiders questioned his heart, he was eager to return to his sanctuary.
Once the game started, the Warriors star was beautiful. His shots were falling, he was keeping pace, if not setting it, and providing so much of what the Warriors had been missing while stumbling into an abyss, one loss away from being ousted by the Toronto Raptors in The Finals.
Durant lasted three seconds shy of 12 minutes of court time before it all came apart. Holding the ball, he made a hard cut, shifted his weight onto his right foot and, bam, in an instant he was limping away in pain, dropping to the floor while clutching his lower right leg.
Though the Warriors held on for the victory, 106-105 over the Raptors, the visitors' locker room at Scotiabank Arena was less a scene of satisfaction than a crucible of anger and sorrow.
There were tears, according to those in the room, and eventually those of despondent general manager Bob Myers came spilling out in public. Durant's injury, according to Myers, is to his right Achilles tendon. Though the extent of the damage will not be determined until KD undergoes an MRI test Tuesday afternoon, he left the building on crutches, his right leg in a protective boot.
"Prior to coming back, he went through four weeks with a medical team, and it was thorough, and it was experts and multiple MRIs and multiple doctors, and we felt good about the process," Myers said, his voice cracking. "He was cleared to play tonight; that was a collaborative decision. I don't believe there's anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department."
Myers was falling on an invisible sword. By all accounts, Durant had undergone numerous tests, with input from an assortment of medical experts before being cleared. During his time on the court, he looked as if he'd never been away.
"Ain't no way you can say he came back too fast," Andre Iguodala told NBC Sports Bay Area. "Did you see what he was doing?"
KD scored 11 points, he buried all three of the 3-pointers he took and both free throws. His plus-6 was the highest of any Warrior. The man whose will to play was questioned by some was putting his signature on a game that meant so much to his team.
"And to tell you something about Kevin Durant," Myers said. "Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong."
Durant took to his Instagram story to express his frustration as well as his pride in how his teammates responded.
The Warriors, somehow, some way, dug in and rode a combination of moxie and 3-point shots to beat back Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors.
Never, though, have I seen such a so many somber faces in the wake of such a stirring and significant victory.
"We had gotten our brother back," Shaun Livingston told NBC Sports Bay Area. "Yeah, we got big bro back. Before, it was like, ‘Wait until he comes back.' Then ... get hit with a gut punch."
After being helped to his feet, Durant took a few steps before being assisted off the floor and into the locker room by Dr. Rick Celebrini and Iguodala. The Warriors were leading, 39-34, with 9:46 remaining in the second quarter.
Some fans inside the arena cheered Durant's injury -- something that left several Warriors seething -- before several member of the Raptors, including KD's former Oklahoma City teammate Serge Ibaka, signaled for quiet. The sense of loss, to Durant and to the competition in this game, was palpable.
"Everybody gets so wrapped up in chasing championships and the greatness that you see on the floor," Stephen Curry said. "But life is more important in terms of caring about an individual and what they're going through on a daily basis.
"And you see the commitment and the challenges and just what's been thrown at KD this whole year, really. And he gave us what he had, he went out there and sacrificed his body, and we know how it turned out."
This was Durant's night to begin his rescue of the Warriors. Amid all the noise around his future, and where he might or might not play, and the doubts about his commitment to the Warriors, Durant was showed up to play. He wanted to be out there, looked as if he belonged.
"If you respect the game and you treat the game the right way, it's supposed to reward you," Livingston said. "It didn't reward him tonight."