SEATTLE — I still have visions of teenaged Kevin Durant in 2007, living large and free in the house he shared with his mother on Mercer Island.

Durant was a Sonics hero and man of the people. He’d hang with the neighborhood kids, hand out candy bars on Halloween. It was a mutual love affair.

Those now seem like such innocent times for Durant. Watching from afar — because that’s the only way we can watch the NBA in Seattle, since 2008 — it seems like he has gotten increasingly jaded and even bitter over the years. Durant appears to be hypersensitive to criticism, as witnessed by the two social-media burner accounts he created to answer critics, ostensibly anonymous.

Did all that come into play Monday night during Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Toronto, a haunting evening for Durant and the NBA? Everyone was in a rush to assign blame after Durant planted, winced and crumpled late in the first quarter because of a right-leg injury.

He had played magnificently until that point, despite a month’s hiatus because of a right-calf injury. But even after a rousing Warriors win, perhaps the greatest of their championship era, the questions of culpability came flooding forward.

Durant shouldn’t have played, ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jalen Rose declared.

“I blame the Warriors for KD getting hurt, and I don’t care what they say about it,” thundered TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.

And then Warriors general manager Bob Myers, ashen and choked-up, took to the podium Monday night to announce that the injury was not a relapse of the calf. It was the dreaded Achilles tendon. Though the extent isn’t known yet, the prevalent belief within the Warriors, according to reports, is that it is torn, which if true could change the course of NBA history.

Myers knew the inclination would be to decide whose fault it was for allowing Durant to play — that’s how we roll in 2019 — and he shouldered the blame.

“That was a collaborative decision,” Myers said, voice cracking. “I don’t believe there is anybody to blame, but I understand this world. If you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department.”

Myers went on to say that multiple doctors and experts evaluated Durant and cleared him — “good people,” in his words.

Here’s what I think: Sometimes laying blame isn’t the right way to go, as tempting and satisfying as that can be. This is complicated. It’s an intertwined knot of human emotions, of the fallibility of the human body, of the unpredictability of sports. I wouldn’t quite call it fate, but I’d say it’s just terrible luck for Durant.

I do believe Durant heard the whispers, because it seems he always hears the whispers. He heard it when they said he took the easy way out, the coward’s way out, by signing with the Warriors in 2016 after Golden State had kept his Oklahoma City Thunder from winning the title.

And even though he led the Warriors to two more titles — as Finals MVP, no less — they said they came with an asterisk, which ate at Durant.

And then, when he went down and the Warriors rolled on without him, they said the Warriors didn’t even need Durant.

Until Toronto took a three games to one lead in the NBA Finals, and the narrative shifted completely: The Warriors desperately needed Durant, and he should suck it up and get back on the court.

The “they” I refer to, by the way, is not necessarily representative of the majority opinion, or even the prevailing opinion. It’s the loud, out-front contingent on social media and the airwaves from which Durant seems unable to divorce himself.

And so I believe he felt motivated to prove those people wrong — along with his already strong desire to help the Warriors win another title. When the doctors cleared him, Durant’s will to get back on the court overpowered whatever inclination he might have had to protect the massive payday that lay just ahead in free agency.

For that, somewhat ironically, Durant finally may be widely viewed as a warrior, small w, and a Warrior, large w. It was an act of selflessness, courage and honor that elevated his stature within the sport and silenced his critics, even as the Toronto fans callously celebrated his downfall. As Husky assistant coach Will Conroy tweeted: “Kevin Durant was a Basketball God tonight.. sacrificed his body for his teammates to live another game.. Could end up getting his 3rd ring because of his 12 mins!!!”

But now Durant’s future is muddled. If his Achilles is torn, he certainly would miss a full season, and there’s no guarantee he would be the same player when he returns. And NBA free agency took a huge jolt. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets were lining up to make a spirited run at Durant, who in turn could have proved his ability to mold a franchise into a winner without the aid of the Splash Brothers. The New York Daily News headline Tuesday said it all: “Knicks lose Game 5.”

Durant may ultimately lose millions of dollars by playing 11 minutes Monday night. Not that he’ll be indigent — he could exercise a player option to return to the Warriors for $32 million. And some teams surely would gamble on his eventual recovery. But Durant is no longer the sure thing, and his rise up the hierarchy of all-time greats might have been slowed, or halted.

Could the Warriors have done more to protect Durant from his will? Perhaps, but once the medical team clears him, it’s hard to blame them for turning him loose in a must-win game. Were the doctors in error? Perhaps, but as advanced as medicine is these days, there still are mysteries and unknowns. Could Durant have been more pragmatic in his decision-making and more forceful in his resistance?

Perhaps, but he was feeling the weight of years of denigration. And basketball players want to play basketball.

It was just an unfortunate amalgam of circumstances that resulted in the game’s best player being helped off the floor at Scotiabank Arena. Kevin Durant might never be the same player because of it — but that might well have been his finest moment.

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©2019 The Seattle Times

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