The debate of whether these Golden State Warriors need Kevin Durant is over, if it ever should've been a debate in the first place. The two-time defending champs are on the ropes, down 3-1 in the Finals to a Toronto Raptors team that has been unequivocally superior in all facets, and suddenly KD feels like the last man standing between dynasty and defeat.
Will he be ready to play in Game 5 on Monday?
Should he play in Game 5 even if he's not fully ready?
These are two very different, very layered questions, and somewhere within the difficult answers could lie the legacy of an all-time player and team. To the first question, nobody knows whether Durant will play in Game 5 on Monday. Shortly after Game 4, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that both Durant and the Warriors are frustrated by his lack of progression. It was initially believed to be a two-week injury, maybe a little more depending on how he responded to treatment. We're now going on five weeks by the time the ball is tipped in Game 5.
"Durant just isn't ready," Windhorst said. "His body isn't ready. The trainers don't believe it, he doesn't believe it. He tried to do some stuff at practice [on Thursday]. It didn't work."
So now we wait and see if these next two days provide the breakthrough Durant and the Warriors are desperately waiting on. It's not out of the question. On Thursday, Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon and the executive medical director at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, told CBS Sports that at this point in Durant's rehab, "It really is day to day."
"This injury is a matter of performance," Dr. Beyer told CBS Sports. "Durant is a guy that needs absolutely optimal performance of his gastroc muscle (calf) to jump. He can't do the things he needs to do to play. Again, it's entirely feasible that function just won't return in time to play in this series. Or he could wake up and have that breakthrough he needs, ramp up his on-court activity and get back out there."
The elephant in the room, of course, is that we've all seen guys roll up their sleeves and play injured, certainly in games as important as the NBA Finals. Klay Thompson begged the Warriors, to no avail, to let him play in Game 3, then scored 28 points in Game 4 on a bum hamstring. Kevon Looney played Game 4 with a fracture in his ribs. Kawhi Leonard was hobbling around like he had a nail stuck in his leg in the Eastern Conference finals, and he's clearly still not fully healthy. But he's playing. And dominating.
The flip side, of course, is that Leonard didn't play last year for the Spurs. Not just in the playoffs, but pretty much all season. He was hurt, and even when the team got frustrated and began questioning his injury to the point that it completely eroded their relationship, he did what was best for him and his career, and now here he is, a portrait of both patience and perseverance on the cusp of winning a championship.
Durant, too, has his basketball future to think about, and it's a future that might not include the Warriors. "If [Durant] comes back on a still partially torn calf and then fully tears it, that would be a major injury," Dr. Beyer said. A fully torn calf, according to Dr. Beyer, is something that could affect him the rest of his career. In a worst-case scenario, compensating for an unstable calf muscle could put Durant at risk of tearing his Achilles tendon just a bit down from his current injury site. That's devastating to even think about, but if you're Durant, this summer's marquee free agent with years of elite play still ahead of him, you have to.
Remember when Isaiah Thomas played through his hip injury in the 2017 playoffs for the Boston Celtics? He has never been the same. He went from a top-five MVP candidate to an end-of-the-bench journeyman clinging to a career. He lost tens of millions of dollars he would've surely been in line to make had his health not failed him. Do you think for a second Thomas doesn't question that decision to push his body every single day? In his private moments, even for the respect it earned him among his teammates and coaches, you would understand if he regrets it.
Regret, of course, cuts different ways. And perhaps just as deeply. Opportunities like the one Durant has in front of him don't come along often. If ever. How much would he regret not taking advantage of it? We know what's at stake for the Warriors as they try to dig out of this 3-1 hole. A three-peat. A fourth title in five years. A legit case as the most dominant team in NBA history. But even if they don't pull it off, their place in the pantheon of all-time great teams is secure. Perhaps one or two slots lower on the list, but on the list. No question.
For Durant, it's more complicated -- fitting for his three-year Golden State tenure that has inspired so many unanswerable questions. For instance: How can perhaps the best player in the league not be the clear-cut best player on his own team? As Durant's absence continues to validate his significance, even on a team with a core that won an NBA record 73 games and a title without him, it is his potential return that holds the key to ultimate, and intimate appreciation for a player still believed by many -- fairly or not -- to have taken the easy way out.
The first two titles couldn't change that.
This one definitely would.
Strangely, Durant's legacy as one of the greatest players to ever live feels more secure than his legacy with the Warriors, who have always been, and always will be, Stephen Curry's team. It's a lot like the Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez dynamic with the Yankees. A-Rod was more talented. Jeter was more beloved. The difference is that A-Rod never saved the Yankees in a way Jeter couldn't on his own. Durant, on the other hand, is in position to do just that.
Indeed, it has become clear that Curry cannot deliver these Warriors a championship on his own. He needs Durant. The Warriors need Durant. The opportunity to charge, or limp, back onto the court in Game 5, and somehow lead the Warriors back from a 3-1 deficit to win, is one that dreams are made of, and one that will likely never present itself again.
That might sound crazy that a guy who hasn't played basketball in almost five weeks could just roll back out there and lead that sort of resurrection, no less against a Raptors team playing out of its mind, but Durant is absolutely that kind of talent. If it were any other player in the league not named LeBron James, forget about it. Not happening. But if Durant is in the lineup come Monday, you better believe the Warriors have a chance.
But does Durant want to take that chance? Are the Warriors willing to ask him to take that chance? Even at 60 percent, Durant is a difference maker. At 75 percent he's capable of being a potent scorer, even if and he's just using his length to shoot over the top of defenders. If he's playing, Kawhi's going to guard him. That takes Leonard off someone else. These are all very good things for the Warriors, who really only have to win Game 5 to get back in this thing.
Do that, and Game 6 is back at Oracle. That'll be the last game in that building before the team moves to San Francisco. The place will be going bonkers. With Durant back, you would have to favor the Warriors at home. Then it's Game 7, and anything goes. When you break it down one game at a time, it's doable. Not likely, but doable.
But only if Durant comes back. That's the only card left in the deck that can get the Warriors back in the game, and it might be the only chance Durant has to truly validate his decision to come to Golden State in the first place. When this all started, he needed the Warriors more than they needed him. They had won without him. But now things have changed. The Warriors have changed. They're older and not as deep and much more vulnerable, and they're drowning.
If Durant were to somehow save them, he would be a hero. He wouldn't have to go to the Knicks, or anywhere else for that matter, to prove anything more. The burden would be gone. Only the celebration of perhaps one of the five greatest players to ever live would remain, a lifetime of questions having turned to an all-time answer, and if he can muster the strength, and accept the risk, it's potentially all right there for the taking.