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LOS ANGELES — Relaxing in a mansion at the highest peak of the Santa Monica Mountains in the elegant Beverly Crest area on a Tuesday afternoon, Kevin Durant is in the living room plopped on the sofa with his braced-up right leg elevated on top of the sectional.
He’s scrolling through his phone. His brother, Tony, and a few friends are over keeping him company. He has a few hours to kill before his physical therapist pays a visit.
An 80-inch television is mounted on the wall, but it’s off. Everyone is on their phones.
One of the newest members of the Brooklyn Nets, Durant hasn’t spoken publicly since his departure from the Golden State Warriors this summer. In fact, he hasn’t spoken since rupturing his right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors.
The injury and its aftermath were heavily scrutinized and the Warriors were criticized for allowing the 10-time All-Star to return from a Grade 2 right calf strain he sustained in Golden State’s second-round series with the Houston Rockets.
“I know you didn’t come over here for nothing,” Durant says. “I’ll give you something.”
So we got straight to it. Did the Warriors mishandle the injury?
Durant slowly straightened up with a perplexed expression on his face.
“Hell, no. How can you blame [the Warriors]? Hell, no,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I heard the Warriors pressured me into getting back. Nobody never said a word to me during rehab as I was coming back. It was only me and [director of sports medicine and performance] Rick [Celebrini] working out every day. Right when the series started, I targeted Game 5. Hell, nah. It just happened. It’s basketball. S--- happens. Nobody was responsible for it. It was just the game. We just need to move on from that s--- because I’m going to be back playing.”
When he was escorted off the Scotiabank Arena almost two months ago, he was in a daze. Unable to process what had just occurred, all he knew was that he was being helped to the locker room. Initially, he was met with an awful gesture of cheers and applause from fans in attendance before Raptors players signaled the crowd to stop.
Durant doesn’t remember hearing the fans that night, but he has something for them to hear now.
“It will probably be the last time they will be in the Finals,” Durant told Yahoo Sports with a smirk.
Durant attempted to watch the remainder of Game 5 from his hotel room with his business partner, Rich Kleiman, and his Nike representative, Chuck Terrell, but dealing with a whirlwind of emotions, he turned the channel, only to switch it back a few minutes later to cheer on his teammates.
“Yeah, I still think about that night,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “Every experience I’ve been through in the league is obviously always ingrained in my mind, but that one is definitely always going to be a huge part of my career because it’s the biggest stage and the type of injury I had. But now I look at it as me just going out there playing basketball, and I happened to get hurt. And now I’m just waiting to get back. I know it’s a huge deal to everybody else, but I just try to take it on the chin and keep it moving.”
It’s that mindset that pushed Durant to keep working to be ready for the NBA Finals.
“No matter what the series was, I was aiming for Game 5,” he said. “That’s why I played when it was 3-1. No matter what, I just wanted to play in the Finals. I just wanted to hoop, especially if I could be out there. I was feeling good leading up to it. I was working out every day. I was gradually getting back to myself doing the two-a-days. I was really locked in on my game and trying to get back. I really wanted to play in that series.”
The 2018-19 season was a tumultuous one for the Warriors. It was widely assumed Durant was leaving the Bay Area at the end of the year and that speculation escalated after the incident with Draymond Green mid-November.
It’s a conversation Durant is tired of and he rolls his eyes when the subject comes up.
“Hell, yeah, I’m tired of talking about that s---. Look, we’re grown men,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “We understand what this is. We’re playing basketball for a living. It’s a business. Everybody congratulated me when I went to the Nets. Everybody wished me well, and they know that I’m still a phone call away. So, I just happen to play in a different jersey now. Nothing else is going to change.”
Three straight Finals appearances, two Finals MVPs and a starting five that could rival any in history — while playing in one of the league’s more attractive cities — left many within the organization wondering why Durant wanted to leave.
“Because I wanted to,” Durant said. “The basketball was appealing.”
Asked when a decision was made, he replied: “June 30. That morning. I never wanted to disrespect the game by putting my focus on the future. It was always about that day, focusing on that day and what was most important that day. And throughout the season, basketball is the No. 1 thing.”
New York Knicks guard Allonzo Trier, who’s coming off a solid rookie season, stopped by to visit after a workout in the city, exchanging hand daps with everyone before flopping down on the couch next to Durant.
Trier and Durant have been good friends for close to a decade and attended the same high school.
The Knicks were viewed as Durant’s primary destination for much of the year.
“That was crazy. Everyone was saying that,” Trier said.
For Durant, it was unwarranted, irresponsible chatter that took on a life of its own, with his future largely overshadowing the team’s quest for a three-peat. And it took a toll on the Warriors. The only way Durant knew how to defuse the dialogue was to keep his mouth shut and focus on his craft.
His approach made some uneasy, with ownership, management and coaches privately questioning — and in some cases inquiring — whether Durant was at peace with the franchise.
On a few occasions during the season, a team official asked Durant to liven up his disposition, league sources told Yahoo Sports
“I just dove deeper into the game,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I just worked out as hard as I could and focused on being the best player I could be every day. In particular in practice, I really had fun diving into that. I never felt that deep about the game and about every part. Even the small parts from a drill we did in a defensive segment to hitting the game-winner and everything in between. I just really dove into that as I was hearing all of this noise around me.”
It’s at this point when Damian Lillard, the star point guard of the Portland Trail Blazers, checks in with Durant on FaceTime.
Lillard, who goes by the name Dame Dolla when on the mic, shows off the cover of his third studio album, “Big Dolla”, which is dropping this week.
“I’m excited for you, bro,” Durant says to the Oakland native. “This s--- is tight. I told you you're a classy gangsta.”
“That’s exactly what I am,” Lillard replies as they burst out in laughter.
The brief conversation turns to Durant’s health, and the Nets star says he’s progressing before the call ends. Durant is expected to miss the 2019-20 season, but he won’t confirm that prognosis.
“I don’t know,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Just like I didn’t know I was going to get hurt. I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m early in the process. So I’m grinding every day. I’m not even trying to think that far. That’s not going to do me any good. So I just try to focus on what I can control right now, second by second. Who knows? We’ll see.
“But once you get to learn your body a little bit more and you realize what this injury is, you know, it’s going to take a lot of work for me to get back to full strength. I was at a point where mentally and physically, my body and mind had met at the right point and I had reached a level that I never reached before. My mind is still there, now my body just has to catch up. Once that does, I’ll be fine.”
The Nets have a nice young nucleus, a bright head coach in Kenny Atkinson and a promising young general manager in Sean Marks, but not many predicted the organization would overshadow the Knicks for elite talent this offseason.
“If I was leaving the Warriors, it was always going to be for the Nets,” Durant said. “They got the pieces and a creative front office. I just like what they were building.”
The Nets will have to be patient before seeing the duo of Durant and Kyrie Irving playing together. Irving is one of Durant’s closest friends in the league, and the Nets are banking on that relationship creating a positive chemistry on the court.
“I think the friendship part of the league has really grown, especially since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade became such great friends and ended up playing together,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “People see friendship as the way guys are teaming up. There’s nothing wrong with people speculating. That’s just what it is, but we’re just good friends no matter what. We didn’t have to play together. It wasn’t necessary. But, we were friends before anything, and we just happened to want to hoop together. But it wasn’t a thing we planned. It just came together.”
As the evening approaches, Durant’s physical therapist arrives. The 7-foot forward makes his way slowly toward the massage table for treatment and then it’s pool work after that.
But before sitting on the table, Durant spoke of his time in the Bay.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I grew up as a young adult in OKC and then entering my 30s in Golden State was an enlightening experience, getting to play the game and reaching that level with the players of different backgrounds. It was just so much that went into that experience that elevated me mentally, physically and elevated my game. It was a fun time and I appreciate all that we accomplished together.”
He has spent most of his summer at this home, rehabbing and shaping his outlook for the future. Everything he needs is here and at his disposal, but he’ll be moving next month to look for a place in New York.
Before moving on, Durant takes in the scene in the backyard, which features a massive, modern pool that overlooks the city.
“Man, life is good,” he said. “I’ll be back playing at a high level. There’s nothing for me to worry about. I just want to keep getting better. Obviously, I need to get healthy. But just keep improving my game, mastering every part of my game. What I can do now, I feel like I can make it sharper. That’s always been my goal is to strive toward perfection in my craft, and whatever comes with that, I’m cool. It’s the dog days. Just grinding every day. Getting better, getting stronger. It’s a long process.”
With much work to do, Durant takes his final shot.
“All right, now get your ass out of here,” he told Yahoo Sports. “You got what you wanted.”
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