If we’d known what has been going on between Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson the last couple of months, the exchange might not have been so curious.
It was a worldless exchange in the middle of action. One man raising an arm from the bench to celebrate an opposing player. A grin coming in return.
“Me and Klay talk pretty often, a couple times a week,” Durant revealed after the game, a 134-117 victory over his former team Saturday night.
A primary topic of conversation is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. Durant, who tore his right Achilles while playing for the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, is blazing the comeback trail. He is averaging 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 35.7 minutes per game in his first season with the Brooklyn Nets.
Thompson, who tore his right Achilles during a private workout in November, is just getting started down the road.
“It’s good to see him starting to walk, getting out of his boot,” Durant said Saturday night. “Obviously I know what that process is like. I know he’s chomping at the bit to get out on the court and start shooting, start form shooting and stuff, so I can’t wait to see him back out there.”
Durant had 20 points, five rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes Saturday night. It was his first game at Chase Center, and his second against the Warriors. (They met in the season opener in a made-for-televisionn scheduling decision; Durant had 22 points, five rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes of a 125-99 Brooklyn victory.)
Durant’s comeback is doubly impressive for the manner in which he’s doing it — with all of the explosiveness, quickness and precision that helped the Warriors win two championships in his three seasons with the team.
It was on display Saturday night, captured in a moment in the third quarter when he laced the ball between his legs, stepped back and drilled an 18-foot jumper over his defender. That’s when Thompson gestured from the Warriors’ bench, a salute to progress, and Durant smiled back.
A torn Achilles tendon has been a death sentence for many careers, a serious derailment for others. Kobe Bryant was never the same. Neither was Isiah Thomas.
Thompson, who turned 31 last week, will have the additional challenge of trying to come back after missing two seasons. Thompson hasn’t played since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, suffering a torn ACL in his left knee one game after Durant had gone down in a heap.
But, in Durant, Thompson has a beacon. And there are others lighting the comeback trail — less so than Durant, but no less true. One of them is DeMarcus Cousins, another former Warriors teammate who is back after the same two injuries as Thompson. Cousins just did his in reverse. After a torn Achilles in 2018 and a torn ACL in 2019, Cousins is carving out a role in Houston.
(For what it’s worth, the surgeon whe repaired Cousins’ Achilles, Dr. Richard Ferkel, also performed Thompson’s surgery).
Since 2005, there have been 29 Achilles tears in the NBA, according to the injury tracking website InStreetClothes.com. Players who returned to the NBA had an average recovery time of about one year. As medicine advances, recovery times have shortened and players have returned stronger.
However, players who had the best return had spent close to two years in recovery. Durant suffered his injury in June of 2019, and did not return until December 2020.
“The longer you’re out, probably the easier it is to get back,” Ferkel told TrueHoop.com’s Tom Haberstroh. “That might be why it’s a little easier for Durant and other people to get back at a high level because they had a longer period of time to rehab and work at it.”
This is partially due to patience on the part of Durant and the Nets, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Durant could have returned last summer for the Disney World bubble, but he held off. Then the pandemic delayed the start of the 2020-21 season.
That’s nearly 18 months between games — eight more than Cousins, 10 more than Bryant and 11 more than Wesley Matthews. Another example: John Wall, after missing two seasons with his own Achilles injury, is having an extraordinary season for the Rockets.
This isn’t to suggest that Thompson should wait until the 2021-22 season to return. Unlike Durant and Cousins, his ankle isn’t carrying a 7-foot body and, unlike Wall, his game doesn’t rely on explosiveness. Thompson is more like Matthews — a “3-and-D” wing who needs only a baseline of lateral mobility and relies mostly on his outside jumper.
If anything, the advances in medicine that helped Durant provide hope for Thompson. As good as Durant is now, he could be even better next season based on these timelines.
“We’ve always seen that when people get back, the following season they’re even better,” Ferkel told TrueHoop.com. “Because it just takes that long. You’re just not 100% when you get back.”
The lesson: Regarldess of Thompson plays when he returns, a return to peak might be another year away. In Durant, he has someone to remind him.
Contributed by local news sources