Like Durant, Kawhi has proven he’s willing to risk health for rings

Kevin Durant had to be helped off the floor after he injured himself planting his foot down and couldn't put any weight on his leg.

There but for the Grace of God goes Kawhi.

You wonder if that thought — or some version of it — was running through the heads of the Toronto Raptors decision makers and medical staff or Kawhi Leonard as Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant was being helped off the floor at Scotiabank Arena early in the second quarter of Game 5 on Monday night.

It clearly wasn’t front and centre for the (small?) portion of Raptors fans who briefly seemed to delight in Durant’s injury before they either realized the severity of it or how bad they looked taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. Or they took the cue from the likes of Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka to check themselves as Durant was being gathered up.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that it could have been Leonard helped off the floor, not to return, his basketball future very much in doubt.

Certainly Leonard had no difficulty empathizing with Durant’s plight, not after missing nearly an entire season last year and spending all of this one balancing the demands of his job with what his body could reasonably give.

“What do I think about his situation?” Leonard said after Game 5 when asked about Durant. “It’s devastating … You work so hard to get to this point, these are the last games … and I feel bad for him. I’ve been in that situation before.

“I hope he has a speedy recovery, and just gets healthy and I hope that he’s going to be OK mentally, just throughout the whole rehab process. Because like I said before, we work so hard to either play in the Finals or just play in the NBA, and when you’re not playing, it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. But I’m pretty sure he’s going to attack each day and get better and come back strong.”

Consider the parallels: There was a superstar free-agent-to-be — Durant — trying to play at the highest level while recovering from a pre-existing injury after having his character questioned in the process.

And there was said free-agent-to-be leaving the arena on crutches, his right leg in a walking boot, his season done and his off-season and the chance to sign a long-term contract worth many, many millions suddenly jeopardized, not to mention his team’s chances to win an NBA title along with it.

That has always been the worst-case scenario facing Leonard and the Raptors.

And an added twist? The Warriors’ director of sports science and performance is Rick Celebrini — a protégé and business partner of Raptors director of sport science Alex McKechnie — who joined Golden State before this season.

Chances are the protocols the Warriors used to determine Durant’s readiness were similar to the guidelines the Raptors and McKechnie have been following so carefully with Leonard.

The difference is that in Durant’s case, events have played out on a compressed, 33-day timeline since he went down on May 8 in the second half of Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets.

Leonard’s situation has played out over an entire season in Toronto after he was traded last July by the San Antonio Spurs, arriving with an air of mystery surrounding the exact nature of his injury and how much he was willing to risk to play at the highest level for his new team.

How close has Leonard been to the exact scenario playing out while Raptors fans stared on in stunned silences is something we’ll never know. With one or two games left in what has been a magical Raptors season — Toronto can win the NBA title in Game 6 in Oakland on Thursday night, if not Game 7 is in Toronto on Sunday — hopefully we’ll never find out and Leonard can finish his season strong and healthy.

But there’s no doubt that the Raptors have been playing some version of injury blackjack with Leonard over the course of the post-season, as the Warriors were with Durant since he went down.

As one member of the Raptors medical staff said, the only way to make sure you don’t make a mistake as the medical decision-maker in the big money, high stakes world of professional sports?

Don’t say yes.

“If you say the athlete is not ready, you are never wrong,” he said.

But that’s not how it works. If professional athletes only played when they were fully healthy, when there were minimal risks to mind, body and reputations, the whole enterprise would collapse in on itself.

Safe is boring. Safe doesn’t win, and safe doesn’t pay the bills, for anyone.

It’s why watching Leonard’s ‘load management’ strategy play out over the course of the season for Toronto has been such compelling drama in its own right, adjacent to his amazing on-court feats.

The correct and calculated business decision for Leonard was always to take this season to get his body right so he could demonstrate that he was physically capable of playing at the level he was at when he was second in NBA MVP voting in 2016 and third in 2017 before being shut down.

Get healthy and then let the market dictate his next move, whether it’s sign for five years and $190 million in Toronto; four years and $140 million elsewhere, or perhaps a shorter-term deal that would give him more flexibility and allow him to hit free agency again after a 10th season when he’d be eligible for even richer deals.

That was the speculation in some corners as Leonard appeared in just 60 of 82 games, although if you watched how hard and almost recklessly he played when he was on the floor, the answer was always obvious.

But the question remained: How much was Leonard willing to risk in order to lift the Raptors to new heights?

It was a variation on the questions that swirled around Durant’s halting return to play. With two rings and two Finals MVPs to show for his two years in Golden State, what was his incentive to rush back and play with a slow-to-heal calf injury?

Narratively, he might even benefit if the Warriors struggled without him, his absence the definitive proof he was central to Golden State’s success the past two years, rather than a luxury add-on to a 73-9 team that already won a ring before he joined them.

As other Warriors played through injuries — Andre Iguodala with his calf strain; Kevon Looney with his collarbone; Klay Thompson and his balky hamstring — whispers Durant was somehow malingering began to waft out the way these kinds of smoke signals do — back channel communications with agents, knowing winks from team staffers or even an off-the-record cryptic comment from a teammate.

Which explains why Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers, bordering on tears, came out swinging in the wee hours after Durant went down.

“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 said.

“And I’m not here to — he’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”

Getting to know Leonard for long stretches of the Raptors season was a challenge. His famously reserved personality and his metronomic, individualized routine didn’t offer a lot of crevices for even his teammates to grab onto and create a connection.

Coupled with the constant reports he was just passing through Toronto on the way to somewhere brighter or warmer, it was easy to understand why even within the Raptors dressing room there was some mystery about how willing he was to sacrifice for the cause.

Those questions are out of the window now and perhaps proof — in light of Durant’s injury — that questioning an elite athlete’s passion to play is almost always a terrible idea.
Over Toronto’s eight-week playoff run, Leonard has proven what Durant tried to show in his 12 minutes in Game 5 — that if the currency of a championship is physical risk, he’s willing to ante up.

After a season of precisely calibrated playing time, Leonard’s game log reads like something out of the 1970s at some points as the minutes have ramped up and his load gets ever heavier. He’s played 40 minutes or more in 10 of the Raptors’ 23 post-season games and is averaging 39 minutes a night in the playoffs.

He’s wavered at times with reports — and replays — suggesting he’s had issues with his troublesome right quad and compensating tendonitis in his left knee. Anyone who watched Leonard grind his way through 34 minutes in Toronto’s Game 4 over the Milwaukee Bucks after only a day’s recovery following his epic, leg-dragging 52-minute contribution in Toronto’s must-have, double-overtime win in Game 3 would never question what he’s in this for.

The good news for the Raptors is the appreciation and confirmation can still play out while Leonard is healthy and on the floor, and pushing himself to the limit in pursuit of a championship. If he’s bent at times over the post-season, he’s yet to break.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors have not been so lucky.

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