Kevin Durant really had nothing to prove in 2016, as someone who had won an NBA MVP and multiple scoring titles and almost knocked off the ascendant Warriors in the Western Conference finals. But he thought differently, and joined the Warriors that summer to prove he could be a champion. He’s rode in two championship parades since then and has two Finals MVP trophies on his mantle.
Kevin Durant really had nothing to prove Monday with his Warriors down 3-1 in the 2019 NBA Finals and having been out with a calf injury for a full month. But after reportedly engaging in two-a-day workouts to get better, and amid some apparent pressure from within the organization to get on the court like Klay Thompson (pulled hamstring) and Kevon Looney (cartilage fracture in the chest) did, Durant played in Game 5. He played 12 glorious minutes in the game’s first 14, scoring 11 points and hitting all three triples he shot.
And then he crumpled to the floor holding his lower leg. The team later revealed he suffered an Achilles injury. The fear is that he tore it.
This is Kevin Durant’s legacy: he had nothing left to prove about his talent, his toughness, his importance, his anything. But he sought to do it anyway.
In some ways, this is probably in the DNA of most professional athletes. You don’t work as hard as you need to in order to become a pro athlete without feeling some mandate to improve. It’s just acutely apparent in Durant.
Circa 2016, Durant had everything you can accomplish in basketball except an NBA championship. So he made choices to prioritize that, which meant joining a 73-win team that made him feel essential to its cause, even if everyone in basketball felt it an unnecessary choice.
And Durant, it turns out, was essential to that cause, as these Finals prove. The Warriors were excellent without Durant. They are unstoppable with him. If the cause is winning championships every season, Durant is essential to it, whether we like the stated goal or the competitive imbalance it creates or not.
There has been much speculation before and after Game 5 about the pressure Durant felt to play on his injured leg given the Warriors’ 3-1 deficit. There is more to be revealed, for sure. But one easily imagines that no one pressured Durant more than Durant himself. He had nothing left to prove about his value to this team — the 3-1 deficit spoke volumes — but he was out there anyway. This is the cost of that drive: he pushed too far too fast, and now he’s out. And it’s quite likely, given a chance to do it all over again, without intending to diminish the enormous pain and disappointment he’s surely feeling, Durant would make the same choice. That’s who he is.
The actual mechanics of how Durant’s future will play out are less important right now than what the renewed evidence of Durant’s personality means for his future. There have been persistent rumors that Durant will join the New York Knicks this summer and attempt to return the franchise to glory, perhaps with a superstar teammate like Kyrie Irving or Anthony Davis. Those rumors fit perfectly into Durant’s legacy: he has two championships, an NBA MVP, two Finals MVPs, gold medals, a first-ballot Hall of Fame resumé: he has nothing left to prove. But he would want to go prove he can bring the Knicks from the basketball graveyard back to the mountaintop, wouldn’t he? That’s who he is.
That’s all up in the air now, but Durant’s legacy shouldn’t be. It never should have been. Durant is one of the greatest basketball players we’ve seen, and he’s accomplished more than anyone — even himself — could ever imagine. Durant had nothing to prove as of Monday afternoon and he has nothing prove now or ever again.
Something tells me, though, that Durant will now seek to prove he can come back from what appears to be a devastating injury to reign again. It’s who Durant is to prove something that shouldn’t be in question.