Kevin Durant’s career altering injury is an NBA Finals showcase of Murphy’s Law, when everything that could go wrong inevitably does.
When is it okay for an athlete to say ‘No’ to the fans, the media, and even his own team? We hold injured players guilty until proven innocent in this society. Their own word considered faulty eyewitness testimony compared to a team doctor’s bulletproof bill of health. To put it simply, we need proof ‘they’re not faking.’ It’s why Kevin Durant ended up sacrificing his achilles to earn his NBA Purple Heart. Seemingly, the only path available for a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict in the public arena of sports injuries.
Picture escaping your fate with a slap on the wrist just weeks before. You run up the court like thousands of times prior, when you feel the sensation of someone kicking your foot. Confused, you turn around but there’s no one there. Not a soul was close-by on the hardwood. The truth suddenly dawns on you, there was no kick, your health is in imminent jeopardy. The body sending a warning shot with a quick peek into the future. You manage to barely evade a life-changing trajectory. Yet, like Final Destination, fate has a way of chasing you down to get its way.
Just a month passes but the pressure to return builds from all sides, trapping the player in a spider web. The media speculates the team doesn’t need you when they win… But does everything but all out demand you should come back when they lose. ‘Hint, hint.’ A cloud hovers over your head, questioning your very passion because of lingering free agency. Despite a three-peat being every NBA player’s Holy Grail. A dream since childhood on the cusp of becoming reality in adulthood. Every day a new article sees ink questioning your drive, the seriousness of your injury, and if you’re needed… All enough to drive anyone practically to madness, desperately longing to prove the naysayers wrong.
The childhood dream is on the verge of elimination, just one game away. You’re more or less pressured into a workout and what once was easy feels as grueling as ever. The signs to stay away are shoved aside for the time being, hoping to stay the course. There you are, NBA Finals Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors, leading the Golden State Warriors with a quick 11 points… When reality pulls your leg from the heavens to drag you back to its darkest abyss.
You grab at your achilles trying to process what has happened. Attempting a negotiation between the mind and the body to not have this ending. But the credits have already started rolling, it’s futile. No reset button to life, no reboots and no timeouts. You make one wrong decision and there’s no escape or reversal. In your Purple Heart you gain the tears of your GM and the inadvertent respect of your colleagues for going out there. But was it worth it?
When before the only ‘what if’ was the result of the NBA Finals, now you’ll inevitably wonder ‘what if’ for the rest of your career. A curse post-return. Even if you come back good as new… The human mind cannot help but wonder if it would be better had the achilles injury never happened. A possible NBA Championship ring simultaneously doubling as a ‘cautionary tale‘ for other athletes. A spokesperson position you never asked for. You’re left pondering what you’ll be like and how the moment your achilles ruptured will change your life.
Yet, had you won Finals MVP and three-peated, it would be the highest of highs instead of bittersweet regardless of outcome. Hindsight is indeed 20/20.
There’s shots in the NBA Playoffs that vaporize teams and send franchises scrambling into an instant rebuild. Shots that keep their victims up at night, tossing and turning. Ball hitting net burned into their retinas everywhere they look. Grasping at a ring stolen out of their fingertips.
1) Ray Allen rescues ‘The Decision’
Imagine spending a year’s worth of salary on a Tiffany’s engagement ring, only to have it snatched just before you propose. The Spurs’ Manu Ginóbili once commented, ‘It’s not the blowout losses that keep me up at night but the games that were decided on one or two plays.’ Better to lose the race early than get edged out at the finish line. The San Antonio Spurs were so close to victory they could taste it… Only to pause and rewind the moment a Larry O’Brien vanished from their trophy case for eternity. The squad would go on to achieve retribution in 2014 but the chance to tie Michael Jordan, even non-consecutively, will always elude the arena Tim Duncan built.
Ray Allen’s iconic shot not only devastated one franchise… It pulled one teammate’s off the court ‘Decision’ from the quicksand of lifelong scrutiny. In an alternate timeline where Allen misses, the last visual from 2013 NBA Finals would have been LeBron James missing a crucial shot as time winds down. Going 1 of 3 in the NBA Finals after boasting “Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7!” during a Miami Heat debut press conference. Along with a calamitous defeat against an overmatched underdog on paper during the 2011 NBA Finals. Perhaps, LeBron never goes back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, feeling intense pressure to prove South Beach was the right choice…
2) Kyrie Irving changes landscape of the NBA with a single shot
Kyrie Irving’s fancy ball handling into a rhythm 3 in the 2016 NBA Finals set the course for an arms race. An NBA Cold War. Make no mistake, if the Warriors win this series, it’s a good bet Draymond Green never calls Kevin Durant in that parking lot. Or at all. There would be no need to fix that which isn’t broken. The chances for Durant signing onboard with the Warriors in the summer are drastically reduced. Maybe Durant even remains in OKC, signs a speculative 1+1 deal.
It was this Irving 3-pointer fueling a Championship comeback that left the Warriors scrambling for answers. A 3-1 series lead squandered. Enter the era of the Big 4. Rolling tanks into every game against the equivalent of volunteer infantry on horseback. The years following would see the NBA lose even a hint of parity as the Warriors became unstoppable, a literal regular season All-Star team. Crowned champions before pre-season barring injury.
3) Damian Lillard sends the Thunder into an instant rebuild
Fatality. Flawless Victory. Damian Lillard uppercutted the Thunder franchise out of the sky and descending into an unforgiving pit. The series winning buzzer beater not only put an end to the Thunder’s playoff hopes, it single handily sent its two franchise players onto two different teams. Leaving the most meager of remnants of Thunder DNA behind.
Miles away from the NBA Finals trip of yore. Lillard would ominously wave good bye, leaving a franchise crumbled under the weight of one shot. As The Prodigy’s Keith Flint once sang, “I hear Thunder but there’s no Rain.”
4) Kawhi Leonard raises Raptors, makes opponent shed tears
Kawhi Leonard made time stand still, and went it came back a 7-foot phenom was reduced to uncontrollable tears. The young 76ers paid the collective dues of hard earned agony. When your very best is still not good enough. When giving it your all, 110%, does not match what you envisioned in your mind.
The Raptors would go on to win the NBA Championship and though Kawhi left, the franchise will always look back fondly at The Klaw. While the 76ers play catch up to what could have been…
5) Stephen Curry ends ‘Grit and Grind’ from half court
There are times when a shot can demoralize and gut punch an opponent onto the ropes before a fourth quarter even commences. Stephen Curry’s buzzer beating 3 from half court made the boulder the Grizzlies had been working so hard to push forward, roll right back. Despite a valiant comeback by a returning face masked Mike Conley in Game 2 and 3 of the series, team adrenaline was starting to wear off.
It was the best the Grizzlies had looked since the 2011 and 2013 playoffs… And it still wasn’t enough to put the Warriors away. ‘Grit and Grind’ would never fully recover after this playoff loss, losing two years in a row to the Spurs. Full circle. The team they’d once vanquished from Championship aspirations in 2011 returning the favor. The roster would slowly be disassembled as the era of the last traditional big man-led team concluded. Postups traded in favor of standing behind the 3-point line.
6) LeBron James shows there’s no stopping momentum in the NBA
The invisible hand of momentum is dually deceptive. To the ones caught in its crosshairs, there’s no leaving the containment zone, to outsiders it feels nonexistent. Equal opportunity. Another game, another chance. Manu Ginóbili once commented following Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals to USA Today, “I have no clue how we’re going to be re-energized. I’m devastated. But we have to. There’s no Game 8 afterward.”
Ray Allen’s championship sinking 3-pointer had demoralized the Spurs to the point of no return. LeBron’s Game 7 winner would finalize the Spurs’ fate for the Finals. One that had already been written before tipoff. Just look at Tim Duncan uncharacteristically slapping the court, every possession gone wrong playing before his eyes in one flash.
7) Kevin Durant returns Finals pain experience, full circle
When you’re constantly fighting the tide, you end up being swept up. The Cavaliers’ hopes of living another day were dashed as a Great White’s fin thwarted their exhausting escape. With one 3-pointer, Kevin Durant closed the book on any divine comeback and effectively ended the series. One lion can only dominate the savannah for so long before his hungry peers team up to oust him from his throne.
8) Lillard takes franchise mantle with one shot
Damian Lillard rise to prominence after ending the Rockets’ postseason hopes would led to an unexpected consequence… The perception by the Trail Blazers’ franchise big man LaMarcus Aldridge to feel underappreciated according to USA Today. Aldridge would depart to the San Antonio Spurs, leaving a Trail Blazers team that until this day, is always one Aldridge level big man from contending. Jusuf Nurkić being the first to show what could have been until suffering a season ending injury.
Ironically, Houston would make a deep run in the playoffs the season after, while the Trail Blazers were eliminated quietly in the first round. Only winning one game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
9) Metta World Peace/Ron Artest makes Lakers History
There are few rivalries as iconic as the Lakers/Celtics, spanning multiple generations. An unlikely hero rose in the midst of the Celtics’ infantry swarming General Mamba. The Lakers’ Ron Artest/Metta World Peace would launch the most clutch 3-pointer of his career to put the squad up 6 with one minute to go. Following up with kisses blown to the crowd. The pendulum would swing the Lakers way to another Championship parade. Redemption tour complete.
10) Paul Pierce exposes Raptors’ foundations
Before LeBronto, Paul Pierce was already exposing the Raptors to the basketball world. Pierce sank a late fourth quarter 3 to put the Wizards up 3-0 against the Raptors with signature worthy ease. In many ways, this game should have served as a warning sign to the franchise that for whatever reason the Lowry/DeRozan 1-2 punch didn’t quite work together. Despite their great individual talents as players and friendship off the court, the duo appeared to repeatedly lose confidence in the face of adversity. Lowry would go 5-22 and DeRozan 11-29, making most of his 32 points at the free throw line (7 of 7) in their Game 3 loss.
While the Raptors would make a deep run the following year, LeBron would end their hopes, and do the same the following two seasons. Sometimes a single shot is an exposé.
Bonus #1: Zach Randolph’s statement on playoff seeding
There is no greater basketball pain for a #1 seed than to be sent home in the first round. The drudgery of the regular season proven fruitless in the end. Zach Randolph’s 3 put the Grizzlies up 2-1 but it was already crystal clear where the tide was turning.
Randolph had previously led a rebellion against the Mavericks after being down 0-3 in the 2003 NBA Playoffs as a Trail Blazer. Taking the Mavs to the brink of humiliating defeat in an unprecedented Game 7. He scoffs at being the underdog having any meaning. The Grizzlies eliminating the Spurs would cement Grit and Grind as a movement in Memphis. ZBo, their Shepard.
Bonus #2: Vince Carter’s alternate timeline 3
For many years, Vince Carter was disparaged by the media for attending his college graduation ahead of Game 7 of the 2001 Raptors/76ers series. Detractors bringing up the final missed shot and loss as a supposed result of not staying linearly focused. In reality, according to Ball Is Life, Vince Carter only stayed for 20 minutes of the ceremony and was already in Philly “5 hours before the game.” While VC had no regrets about attending the ceremony, he was able to reconcile the moment with a corner buzzer beating 3 in the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Goes to show, every career is one shot away from critical acclaim or eternal criticism.
Free throws that changed the game:
It’s not always the whirlwind buzzer beaters from behind the the 3-point line or the shake and bake rhythm shots that change the game. Sometimes two free throws immeasurably change the league’s trajectory. In 2013, Kobe Bryant suffered a season ending achilles tear in a regular season game against the Golden State Warriors. Mamba never quite had the same lift upon returning, understandably so.
The basketball world was robbed of enjoying superhuman, Hollywood-esque feats like Kobe’s 2006 Game Winner against the Phoenix Suns. Of course, Kobe being Kobe, left the game on his own terms with 60 points and the W for his retirement game against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. Hollywood-esque indeed.
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Read Laker Lore: Kobe Bryant hits 2006 Game Winner against Phoenix Suns and relive one of the NBA’s most iconic moments!
6.1 seconds on the clock. Overtime. Kobe Bryant methodically advances a dribble up-court with the cavalry in front of him, reading his every move. Despite knowing the future, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw are unable to stop it from arriving.
Rewind in time to a jump ball tipped by the Lakers’ Luke Walton, rescued valiantly by Kobe Bryant from landing out of bounds. Bryant cradles Spalding’s finest with his left hand, slinks back to his right, pacing himself down the court in Swiss watch-like precision. There is no time to plan and reflect, only act. Every dribble counting more than the last one. Zero margin of error.
Raja Bell rushes to fortify the defenses against this lone adversary, heart rate at full throttle. But Bryant is already past the drawbridge and the moat, the castle has been breached! Backup arrives as Boris Diaw senses impending doom from the fiery catapult about to launch. Doomsday.
Nash’s front lines attempt to smother this renegade uprising to no avail. 1.7 seconds on the clock, Bryant rises above the resistance and takes a shot. The last chance leaves Bryant’s finger tips… Without a hint of hesitation. Breathes are held by both figurative armies as fate floats though the air. Time slows to a crawl momentarily, then returns at mach speed. The jumper pierces through the net and an earthquake-like tremor is felt at the epicenter that is Staples Center. Los Angeles celebrates the spectacle of a victory instantaneously! Roars of ‘MVP’ burst across the seams of their coliseum.
General Phil Jackson remains stoic, waiting for final confirmation the shot counted before time went out. Yet, the Phoenix Suns have already left the court, deflated, morally and physically. The shot they saw coming but could do nothing about. Steve Nash leaves immediately, as the rest of squad follows suit sans Tim Thomas. Who remains bewildered in disbelief at what has transpired. A tipped off ambush that still results in losing ground.
Eventually Nash’s well-trained Suns would miraculously steal victory from the Mamba’s Viper, sending a year of Bryant’s prime back to the dungeon. Tiring out the will of the Lakers fight, forcing them to push a boulder uphill until they could push no longer. Rolling them back to the darkness of winning battles but losing the war in despair…
Yet, the vulture looming was still three games away from feeding. That night, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers owned a 3-1 lead as the underdog #7th seed against the disciplined #2 seed. A whole generation of Laker caught in a drunk haze of triumph, dreaming of the possibilities.
Check out more NBA coverage in the NBA Category section! Features include the question, Is an NBA Championship ring worth an Achilles? A look back at Kevin Durant taking the court for the Golden State Warriors at the 2019 NBA Finals.