Inside Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain: ‘It feels like you got cut’

P.J. Washington of the Charlotte Hornets guards Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets in the third quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on Dec. 31, 2022, in Charlotte, North Carolina. - Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images North America/TNS

NEW YORK — An MCL sprain feels like a scar. It feels like you got cut. It’s an immediate sharp pain followed by an extended dull pain. And when the pain goes away after a few days, so does the range of motion. So does the knee functionality. So does the idea of playing basketball.

That’s what really sets you back.

Kevin Durant re-watched his injury on film. It was a bang-bang play at the end of the third quarter of Brooklyn’s Jan. 8 victory over the Miami Heat. He was under the rim, not guarding anyone in particular, when Jimmy Butler beat Seth Curry off the dribble and challenged Nic Claxton at the rim. And when Claxton blocked Butler’s layup attempt, the Heat star came crashing down and landed directly on Durant’s right knee.

He knew it was an MCL sprain immediately.

It was his third time sustaining this specific injury in the last six years, though it’s the first time it happened to the right knee. The first MCL sprain occurred in 2017 when, as a member of the Golden State Warriors, his teammate Zaza Pachulia accidentally fell into his left leg. The second sprain happened last season in a Jan. 15 matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, when Bruce Brown went tumbling while defending a player in transition and accidentally crashed into Durant’s left knee.

The third, of course, is why he’s currently sidelined. All three plays have a common thread: According to Durant, he was out of position each time.

“I should have just doubled [Butler] instead of emptying out the paint slowly,” Durant conceded after Nets practice at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City on Tuesday. “I was just standing there watching. I wasn’t even guarding my man, I wasn’t even hitting nobody, so I should have just ran and doubled and got Seth off of Jimmy there, and maybe [the injury] wouldn’t have happened.

“I’ve been through [an MCL sprain] three times, and pretty much every time, I was in no man’s land or not even in help position. So I attribute all of [those injuries] to basically not being locked in on that moment, and somebody used the space they felt they had and just fell into that space.”

The Nets announced Tuesday that Durant will be reassessed in two weeks. The organization, Durant himself, and the Hospital for Special Surgery are each pleased with the star forward’s rehab progress. He is set to start running and partake in on-court basketball activities this week. While it is unclear whether or not the superstar forward (who fell to second in Eastern Conference All-Star fan voting) will be fully healed in time to play in the Feb. 19 NBA All-Star Game, make no mistake: Durant wants to play.

“I want to play tomorrow if I can. So that’s what my sense of urgency is,” he said. Due to injuries, he has not made an All-Star appearance since joining the Nets in 2019. “Obviously I don’t want to rush anything. I want to make sure I’m at 100 percent. But yeah, I want to play. I want to be a part of all these events.”

Up to this point, the rehab has been gradual: a couple hours a day of small exercises to rebuild the strength lost in his right knee. He hasn’t done any basketball activities for the last two weeks.

He hasn’t even shot the ball standing still: “I don’t want to tease myself like that,” Durant said. “It’s tough not being able to go full speed, so I just like the small things first.”

Durant will not accompany the team for Wednesday’s trip to Philadelphia to play the 76ers. He has settled into a rehab routine using the equipment at the Nets’ training facility and doesn’t want to break routine.

Although he knows that even if he’s not playing just his presence can give his team a boost, but he says he’s not a constant contact type of communicator with his teammates.

“A quick text after every game, not too much,” Durant said. “I wish I was around there in person so my presence can be felt a little more, but in due time.”

Durant, though, is pleased with how the team has played without him.

The Nets started their Durant-less stretch 0-4 but have won their last two games and defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday before returning home to practice Tuesday.

“When you’re missing one of your starters, it’s always going to be a rough first couple of games,” Durant said. “But I figured the coaching staff and the players would come together, figure out the best way for us to play, and we did that the last two games, beating two good teams, the reigning champions who have been playing great at home.”

Durant has been down this road twice before, and each time he’s gotten hurt, he’s found a way to come back better. Scars heal. Pain subsides. Range of motion and knee functionality eventually return. As will Durant, to a team become more close-knit in his absence, a team on a rapid ascent up the Eastern Conference right up until the moment he got hurt.

For Durant, there’s no sense of feeling sorry for himself, even though freak injuries have been an undercurrent in one of the greatest careers in NBA history. He thinks back to what he could have done to avoid getting hurt in the first place, and what another injury like this ultimately cost.

“Another year of maybe missing the All-Star Game and not playing against LeBron James at home. Stuff like that I look forward to, on top of playing every game,” he said. “Feeling better and a freak injury happens like this. I got to put myself in a better position to avoid stuff like that.

“It wasn’t a feeling of woe is me or why me. It is what it is.”

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