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NBA Playoffs: Kevin Durant offers empathy and perspective on injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George

kevin durant
Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES – Within a four-year span, both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant benefitted indirectly at the other person’s misfortune. It also denied them the chance to have a prolonged one-on-one battle that many NBA fans craved.

So even if he helped the Phoenix Suns to a 129-124 Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Clippers while Leonard nursed a sprained right knee, Durant spoke afterwards with a hint of survivor’s remorse.

“It’s frustrating. You go out to play and you prepare for this whole time of the season,” Durant said. “It’s just frustrating. There’s some stuff that you wish you had more control over. It’s just such a tough situation.”

In a cruel twist of fate, the tables turned on Durant during another high-stakes NBA playoff series against Leonard.

Kevin Durant’s injury in 2019 Finals vs. Kawhi Leonard

After missing nine consecutive playoff games with a strained right calf, Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors for Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Midway through the second quarter, Durant performed a crossover move before rupturing his right Achilles tendon. Leonard eventually helped the Raptors win the NBA title in six games. Following off-season surgery, Durant spent his entire first season with the Brooklyn Nets (2019-20) rehabbing his right Achilles tendon.

“You want to be out there with your teammates. You want to grind at this part of the year,” Durant said. “You feel like you’re letting a lot of people down that spend their hard-earned money to see you do what you do. There’s a lot on your mind at that time. But you just try to focus on rehabbing, getting better and getting out there as quickly as possible.”

No doubt, the Clippers would love for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to return as quickly as possible. The Suns have a 2-1 first-round series lead against the Clippers entering Game 4 on Saturday (3:30 pm ET, TNT). Yet, the Clippers have listed both Leonard and George as “day-to-day” without offering clarity on their availability for Game 4 and their overall recovery.

kawhi leonard
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Lawrence Frank, the Clippers president of basketball operations, said that Leonard aggravated his right knee while playing 42 minutes in Game 1. Although he said the team’s medical staff cleared Leonard to play 39 minutes in Game 2, Frank said that Leonard’s “symptoms got worse” afterwards.

“Hopefully, we get him back sooner than later,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s given us everything he’s had this year. I’m optimistic that anything can happen.”

Clippers forward Paul George also sat on the bench during Game 3. He had already missed the last nine regular-season games as well as Games 1 and 2 while healing his own sprained right knee. George has completed shooting and running drills and posted photos of himself in those workouts Thursday on Instagram. The caption read, “What I WONT do is quit.”

Will Leonard’s injury expedite George’s return?

“He’s made progress, but his recovery time hasn’t changed because Kawhi is out,” Frank said. “He continues to work his butt off and make progress daily.”

Kevin Durant can relate to the ongoing setbacks and uncertain timetables with injuries.

He missed the first nine games of the 2020-21 season before fully healing his right Achilles tendon. He then missed 23 more games after straining his left hamstring. Durant then missed an additional 27 games in 2021-22 (left MCL sprain) and 15 games in 2022-23 (right MCL sprain). Even after the Nets dealt Durant to the Suns before the trade deadline, Durant missed a combined 14 games to heal his right knee and left ankle.

George and Leonard have a more extensive injury history.

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George fractured his right leg in the 2014 FIBA World Championships, an injury that sidelined him for all but the final eight games of the 2014-15 NBA season with the Indiana Pacers. In his final season in San Antonio (2017-18), Leonard played only nine games because of complications with his left quadricep muscle. During that time, the Spurs and Leonard had tension between the team and personal medical staffs. The Raptors then managed Leonard more conservatively the following season through 60 regular-season games, an approach they attributed to Leonard helping the Raptors win the 2019 NBA title.

Once they joined the Clippers in the 2019 offseason, George and Leonard have constantly managed injuries.  In their first season together, Leonard missed 15 games to heal his left knee while George sat for 24 following off-season surgery on both shoulders. In 2020-21, the Clippers continued to handle Leonard (20 games) and George (18) with care. That did not prevent Leonard from tearing the ACL in his right knee in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against Utah. Though the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in history, they lost to Phoenix in six games without Leonard.

He then missed the entire 2021-22 campaign after having off-season surgery. Meanwhile, George sat a combined 51 games to treat an injured right elbow. He also missed the Clippers’ loss to New Orleans in their second play-in game after testing positive for COVID-19. As for this season? Leonard still missed games to manage his right knee (22) and treat a sprained right ankle (six). Aside from his current knee injury, Paul also sat a combined 17 other games to treat various ailments with his right hamstring and left knee.

“I’m sure him and PG are on that same page,” Durant said. “It speaks to his resilience as a human being, him and PG. They both had some tough injuries over their careers. But they still bounced back like nothing happened – both of them. That speaks to their work ethic and their care and love for their bodies and their game and the people around them for helping them out as well.”

The Clippers still kept Game 3 close with Norman Powell (42 points), Russell Westbrook (30), Bones Hyland (20) and Mason Plumlee (10) all cracking double figures. The Suns countered with a top-heavy lineup, including Devin Booker (45 points), Durant (28), Torrey Craig (15), Deandre Ayton (12) and Chris Paul (11).

Leonard made the series more competitive in Games 1 and 2. The Clippers stole Game 1 with Leonard posting 38 points on 13-for-24 shooting in 42 minutes. The Suns took Game 2, thanks to Booker (38 points) and Durant (25). But Leonard still had 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. During both games, Leonard also took turns with defending Durant.

“It’s just mutual respect,” Durant said of Leonard. “Everybody has a different journey and everybody goes through different experiences in this league to make them who they are. We all got unique experiences.”

Unfortunately for Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, their unique experiences included suffering injuries in the middle of a playoff series against each other.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram