Kevin Durant looked like the KD of old on Monday night, scoring 11 points and hitting all three of his 3-point attempts in his first 12 minutes of action since injuring his calf in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. His mere presence changed how the Raptors had to defend the Warriors, but this version of Durant was a real problem.
And then, with 9:46 left in the second quarter, all the excitement and anticipation surrounding Durant's return was swallowed whole by the shock and sadness of watching him clutch at his leg on the far sideline. Durant had to be helped off the floor and back to the locker room for further evaluation.
Golden State managed to escape Toronto with a 106-105 win, but for perhaps the first time in NBA Finals history, the result of the game felt immaterial.
"I just told the team I didn't know what to say because on the one hand I'm so proud of them, just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I'm just devastated for Kevin," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "So it's a bizarre feeling that we all have right now. An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time."
On Wednesday afternoon, Durant announced he ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. He said surgery was successful and his road back "starts now."
Durant's absence obviously impacts the Warriors' title chances, but the ripple effects of his injury will be felt well outside of the Bay Area. A ruptured Achilles brings three key questions with no great answers.
There's no way around it — this sucks. It sucks for Durant, and it sucks for basketball fans. Durant is arguably the best player in the NBA, and taking him off the floor for the foreseeable future is an all-around gut punch.
The confirmation of an Achilles injury means he will face months of rehabilitation. It's difficult to say exactly how long he'd be out, though. Based on one list of eight players who suffered a torn Achilles compiled by FiveThirtyEight, the average recovery time was almost nine months, but those injuries occurred at different points in each player's career.
Rudy Gay has bounced back nicely in San Antonio. Kobe Bryant was never the same with the Lakers. DeMarcus Cousins still hasn't reached anything close to his peak potential. (He also suffered a setback with a quad injury early in the 2019 playoffs.)
During the 2014-15 season, Durant underwent surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot, plus separate ankle and toe issues. He missed 55 games, but he came back in 2015-16 and averaged 28.2 points in 72 games. An Achilles injury presents a tougher challenge, but this doesn't mean he's no longer capable of being an elite player. That experience in Oklahoma City could provide some optimism.
But losing a chunk of his prime is going to hurt no matter what, especially considering Durant was in the midst of the finest postseason run of his career (32.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 51.4 percent shooting, 43.8 percent 3-point shooting). There's no guarantee he falls into that nine-month range, and there's no guarantee he can be as productive when he's ready to hit the court again.
No matter how you feel about Durant, you must acknowledge his immense talent, his work ethic and his love for the game of basketball. The NBA is worse without him, and unfortunately it seems like that will be the case for a good portion — if not the entirety — of the 2019-20 season.
It's easy to second-guess the team and pretend to be a doctor from afar. Warriors general manager Bob Myers attempted to stop the fan diagnoses after Game 5, saying Durant was cleared to play as part of 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," an emotional Myers said. "I run our basketball operations department. And to tell you something about Kevin Durant, Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong."
Myers did his best to shut down any concerns about the team's medical staff, but multiple reports following Game 5 called into question the process that led to Durant being cleared.
Kerr was told by team doctors that Durant couldn't get "more hurt," according to ESPN's Rachel Nichols. (Kevon Looney was told the same thing after Game 5.) Durant wasn't "anywhere close to 100 percent," according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, who also noted there was some "resentment" about how the Warriors made Durant's status a day-to-day storyline instead of simply saying he was out indefinitely.
Maybe the Warriors pushed Durant too hard. Maybe Durant wanted it too much. Maybe the media and fans chirped just a little bit too long and too loud about Durant, and it made him want to shut everyone up. Or maybe it's just a simple case of a player being medically cleared and going down with a terrible injury.
Without all of the information available, it's impossible to point the finger at any one person in particular, as much as we might like for there to be an easy scapegoat. (Again, this just sucks.) At the very least, the Warriors should ensure they followed all the proper procedures when it came to Durant's treatment.
Aside from the immediate speculation about the nature of Durant's injury, Myers will also need to figure out how to approach Durant's upcoming free agency. Durant still has a $31.5 million player option for 2019-20 on the table. He could opt in and take the money while using next year to recover with the Warriors, though that seems unlikely given the money he would be passing up with a new contract.
If both sides want to continue a successful relationship, Myers could offer the five-year, $221 million supermax. That would mean committing to Durant and Stephen Curry, plus another max deal for Klay Thompson this summer and possibly an extension for Draymond Green. That would require a massive check from Warriors owner Joe Lacob, but keeping a dynasty in place isn't cheap.
Of course, Golden State won't be Durant's only suitor.
Don't expect Durant's injury to alter the market. Plenty of teams will be lining up to give him a four-year deal.
The Knicks, Nets and Clippers are prepared to make their free-agency pitches to Durant. However, knowing that Durant could possibly miss the entire 2019-20 season may dramatically change the overall plan around him for any of those teams.
Would the Knicks be less willing to get involved in an Anthony Davis trade knowing they would have him for a Durant-less year? Would the Nets still chase a Durant-Kyrie Irving duo? If Kawhi Leonard stays in Toronto, would the Clippers go all-in on Durant? Which free agents are suddenly much more valuable?
And then there's the overall landscape of the league. Durant won't play for the Warriors because he will either be injured or on a new team. The Western Conference should be much more open, and the Raptors have proven an East squad is capable of winning the championship.
Now teams will feel emboldened to take bigger risks with a wider path to the NBA Finals available. Free agency was already going to be a mess. Durant's injury only adds to the chaos.