Du­rant faces long odds af­ter de­bil­i­tat­ing in­jury

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Con­nor Le­tourneau

As soon as War­riors for­ward Kevin Du­rant came up hop­ping Mon­day night af­ter he col­lided with Rap­tors cen­ter Serge Ibaka in Game 5 of the NBA Fi­nals, Do­minique Wilkins — watch­ing on TV nearly 1,000 miles away at his At­lanta-area home — sprang up from his chair and ex­claimed, “That’s an Achilles!”

Nearly three decades ago, Wilkins was a 32-year-old Al­lS­tar for the Hawks when he tore his right Achilles ten­don in a game against the 76ers. His re­ac­tion had been al­most iden­ti­cal to Du­rant’s: the flinch when he felt the pop; the cou­ple of hops be­fore crum­pling to the floor; the stunned fa­cial ex­pres­sion when he re­al­ized what had just hap­pened.

The War­riors believe test­ing will show that Du­rant — like Wilkins — tore his right Achilles ten­don, league sources con­firmed to The Chron­i­cle on Tues­day. Du­rant flew to New York to be eval­u­ated by doc­tors, sources said, and was sched­uled to un­dergo an MRI.

As he waits to learn the sever­ity of his in­jury, Du­rant is

left wrestling with a num­ber of ques­tions: Was Golden State’s train­ing staff right to clear him for Game 5? How will this af­fect his free agency? Will he get an­other chance to make his case for the world’s best player?

A bas­ket­ball junkie, Du­rant is al­ready fa­mil­iar with the long odds he faces. Play­ers who tear an Achilles ten­don are more likely to not play an­other NBA game than to re­turn to their pre-in­jury form. Team­mate DeMar­cus Cousins, who is two years younger than Du­rant, strug­gled to re­gain his sig­na­ture dom­i­nance this sea­son as he re­cov­ered from a torn Achilles that side­lined him for al­most a year.

But Wilkins, who made two more All-NBA teams af­ter re­turn­ing from his in­jury in nine months, is adamant that Du­rant will fol­low his blue­print and be­come an out­lier. By putting his fu­ture at risk to help keep his team’s sea­son alive, Du­rant showed how he re­sponds when star­ing down a chal­lenge.

“Du­rant is a guy who loves to play,” Wilkins said. “I have a lot of re­spect for him. I think the world of him. I sym­pa­thize with him. And, trust me, he’ll be fine. As a com­peti­tor, he’ll just see it as an­other op­po­nent he can com­pete with.”

As spec­u­la­tion rat-a-tat­tat­ted about whether he even wanted to re­turn for the Fi­nals, Du­rant worked around the clock to speed up his re­cov­ery from a strained right calf. A league source told The Chron­i­cle that, by the time he was cleared to prac­tice Sun­day af­ter miss­ing nine games, Du­rant’s pain push­ing off his right foot was man­age­able.

Al­though he was cleared by mul­ti­ple doc­tors to play Game 5 on Mon­day, Du­rant was not nec­es­sar­ily close to 100 per­cent. This was a cal­cu­lated risk: With the War­riors one loss away from elim­i­na­tion, he was des­per­ate to play, ac­cord­ing to league sources.

Early in the sec­ond quar­ter, when Du­rant limped to the locker room af­ter he fell to the floor on an at­tempted drive to his left, some were quick to scape­goat Rick Cele­brini, the team’s first-year direc­tor of sports medicine and per­for­mance. Widely re­garded as one of the world’s top sports phys­io­ther­a­pists, Cele­brini is in charge of max­i­miz­ing player avail­abil­ity.

“He was cleared to play tonight,” War­riors Gen­eral Man­ager Bob My­ers, fight­ing back tears, said af­ter an­nounc­ing that Du­rant had suf­fered an Achilles in­jury. “That was a col­lab­o­ra­tive de­ci­sion. I don’t believe there’s any­body to blame, but I un­der­stand this world and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our bas­ket­ball oper­a­tions de­part­ment.”

Asked whether there was a cor­re­la­tion be­tween Du­rant’s calf strain and the Achilles in­jury, My­ers con­ceded, “I’m not a doc­tor, I don’t know.” How­ever, a calf in­jury and an Achilles in­jury to the same leg lit­tle more than a month apart could be re­lated, said Dr. Kenneth Jung, a foot and an­kle surgeon at Cedars-Si­nai Ker­lan-Jobe In­sti­tute in Los Angeles.

“If you’re com­ing off a calf in­jury, es­pe­cially if it was only a month or so ago, you’re at a higher risk of ei­ther ag­gra­vat­ing it or suf­fer­ing an Achilles in­jury,” said Jung, who con­sults for the Los Angeles Lak­ers. “That risk is def­i­nitely higher if he’s still hav­ing pain there or sore­ness.

“The tis­sue was essen­tially still heal­ing. He was essen­tially re­hab­bing dur­ing the play­off run, so it’s not re­ally a true re­hab that he was able to go through.”

Jung has not worked with the War­riors on Du­rant’s case, but ex­plained the gray area in which these decisions are some­times made in the NBA.

“Hind­sight is al­ways 20-20,” he said. “It’s a mat­ter of weigh­ing the risks and ben­e­fits, and they were just try­ing to fig­ure out which de­ci­sion was best un­der the cir­cum­stances. It’s not like the team man­dated that Du­rant play that game.”

The most press­ing ques­tion now is when Du­rant will re­turn to the court. Typ­i­cal re­cov­er­ies for a torn Achilles ten­don are six to 12 months, with the vast ma­jor­ity of play­ers com­ing back af­ter at least nine months.

A nine-month timetable would put Du­rant’s re­turn at mid-March, about a month be­fore the reg­u­lar sea­son ends. It’s pos­si­ble for Du­rant to miss all of next sea­son if his team opts to be cau­tious with him like the War­riors were with Cousins.

When Du­rant does fi­nally re­turn, he might not play at his usual level. The Achilles ten­don, which con­nects the calf mus­cle to the heel bone, ab­sorbs force when an ath­lete lands from a jump, then pro­vides power when he or she pushes off the ball of the foot. Since a bas­ket­ball player’s ca­reer de­pends on the abil­ity to jump and change di­rec­tion, Achilles in­juries can be dev­as­tat­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 re­search pa­per pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Sports Medicine, seven of the 18 NBA play­ers (38.9%) who sus­tained ma­jor Achilles in­juries be­tween 1988 and 2011 did not come back to the league. Those who did re­turn missed an av­er­age of 55.9 games the rest of their ca­reer, with only eight of the 11 play­ing a sec­ond sea­son.

The few who did stick in the NBA for a while saw their play­ing time and pro­duc­tion dip. ESPN’s SCHOENE pro­jec­tion sys­tem, which ac­counts for age and other fac­tors be­sides in­jury that could af­fect some­one’s per­for­mance, found that play­ers com­ing off torn Achilles ten­dons have per­formed about 8% worse than pro­jected.

How­ever, there are rea­sons for op­ti­mism. Med­i­cal ad­vances over the past decade have upped play­ers’ chances of a suc­cess­ful re­cov­ery. Spurs for­ward Rudy Gay, for ex­am­ple, has en­joyed two of his most ef­fi­cient sea­sons since suf­fer­ing a torn Achilles in Jan­uary 2017.

When free agency begins in three weeks, NBA teams must de­cide how much Du­rant’s in­jury has hurt his mar­ket value.

A Western Con­fer­ence ex­ec­u­tive, speak­ing un­der the con­di­tion of anonymity, told The Chron­i­cle that there should still be plenty of fran­chises will­ing to of­fer Du­rant max­i­mum money de­spite the fact that he might miss all of next sea­son. Given Du­rant’s gen­er­a­tional tal­ent, a star-hun­gry team could de­cide to di­rect its ros­ter to­ward com­pet­ing in 2020-21 when he has re­cov­ered from the Achilles in­jury.

It’s also pos­si­ble the War­riors’ odds of re-sign­ing Du­rant have im­proved af­ter Mon­day. If he wants to keep the stress low and fo­cus on his re­hab, Du­rant might pick up his $31.5 mil­lion player op­tion for next sea­son and pre­pare for un­re­stricted free agency in sum­mer 2020.

Those who’ve suf­fered an Achilles in­jury, how­ever, know that Du­rant has tougher times ahead than de­cid­ing where he plays next sea­son. Af­ter his 1992 surgery, Wilkins sank into a de­pres­sion.

“When you go through some­thing like this, there’s al­ways go­ing to be that ques­tion in the back of your mind of, ‘Can I get through this?’ ” Wilkins said. “It’s not un­til you re­turn to the court, fall for the first time and feel no pain that you start to re­al­ize, ‘I can be the ex­act same guy I was be­fore the in­jury.’ ”

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

War­riors for­ward Kevin Du­rant in­jures his Achilles ten­don early in the sec­ond quar­ter of Game 5 of the NBA Fi­nals.

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

The War­riors’ Kevin Du­rant (sec­ond from left) is helped off the court by Rick Cele­brini, the team’s direc­tor of sports medicine, who had weighed in on Du­rant’s de­ci­sion to play in Game 5.

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