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Durant’s knee injury made the Warriors think their season was over, too

The team locker room felt like a (playoff) life-and-death situation

For those agonizing hours between the moment Kevin Durant’s left knee buckled just after 7 p.m. Tuesday until learning the injury wouldn’t end his season in the early-morning hours of Wednesday, they were the Golden State Worriers.

Stephen Curry slumped against his locker-room cubicle, his left foot submerged in a container of ice. JaVale McGee, both legs submerged three cubicles away, just shook his head in disbelief. When reporters are allowed in postgame locker rooms, they usually go straight to the player they want to talk to with their iPhones, cameras and notebooks.

But the assembled media was motioned by a team official to stay back for a good 10 minutes. So we observed, like voyeurs almost, the NBA’s best team in their collective grief. They resembled a bunch of crestfallen college kids who had played their last game together after being bounced from the NCAA tournament.

“We’re not going to act like he died” – Draymond Green

Finally, Andre Igoudala motioned to a reporter it was OK to approach him and his teammates.

“We’re not going to act like he died,” Draymond Green said amid a few nervous laughs outside the visiting locker room at Washington, D.C.’s, Verizon Center. “We don’t even know what happened, or what’s going on. We’ve got to know something . . . we really don’t know much right now.”

Green’s right: No real-life tragedy befell the Warriors. But you’d be hard-pressed to find another regular-season locker room anywhere as somber and morose as this one. Golden State hadn’t merely just lost its 10th regular-season game of 60, played in a riveting, trump-this fourth quarter against the Wizards. They feared Durant was lost for the season – they were scared, really, that their stated mission of returning to the NBA Finals and making up for last season’s stunning loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers after being up 3-1 was in genuine jeopardy.

That they would receive the news of whether Durant was lost for the season on March 1 – on 3-1 — was one of those numerological coincidences they just didn’t want to hear or give credence to.

All they knew was the axis of power in the league might have shifted less than a minute into the Warriors’ game against the Wizards, when Washington center Marcin Gortat decided to pursue an offensive rebound, throwing Zsa Zsa Pachulia’s 270-pound frame sprawling toward the ground. Pachuila fell back into a flat-footed Durant. His left leg bent back in an unnatural angle. Moments later, he hobbled off the floor and toward the locker room.

By the third quarter, physicians and trainers decided he needed to leave the arena and undergo an MRI test at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The original MRI prognosis was not good; they feared the absolute worst – major reconstruction, months of rehab and a lost season, according to a team official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But then a CAT scan was ordered, Warriors general manager Bob Myers told reporters Wednesday morning. The CAT scan gave doctors more clarity, a better look at the bone structure around the knee.

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) walks to the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Washington. Durant hyperextended his left knee and exited the Golden State Warriors'

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) walks to the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Washington. Durant hyperextended his left knee and exited the Golden State Warriors’ game at the Washington Wizards for good after all of 93 seconds Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It wasn’t until the wee hours of Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning that most of his teammates and team officials learned Durant had no anterior cruciate ligament tear, that a Grade 2 medial collateral sprain of his left knee would mean he might miss most, or all, of the remaining 22 regular-season games. There is a better than decent chance after being re-evaluated in four weeks and undergoing rehab that Durant could return no later than the start of the NBA playoffs – the only season that really matters to the Warriors franchise anymore.

The team had decided to stay in Washington, so when Durant got back to his hotel room at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, he was quickly besieged by concerned teammates. They wanted to know if their worst fears would be realized, that they might have to go it alone, without the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, April through June.

After the good news, they parted ways Wednesday afternoon – the Warriors on their plane that would take them to Chicago, and Durant on a plane back home to the Bay Area to begin rehab.

“The good news is he’s in a position where we think he’ll fully recover long-term,” Myers said to Warriors reporters. “In the short term, we’ll have to see how his body does. There was a moment where there was a potential different diagnosis, but that didn’t last too long. Most of it was, let’s get another image where we have a clear look at this and that’s what determined the final diagnosis.”

The final diagnosis: The NBA’s axis of power didn’t turn away from Golden State on Tuesday night. They signed journeyman small forward Matt Barnes for some ornery perimeter defense and the occasional dart toward the basket and the deep bomb from the perimeter. The dirty little secret in the NBA for a good 15 years is that the regular season matters less and less for championship-caliber teams.

Ever since the Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant three-peated, the job for a potential NBA finalist is to win enough to earn home-court advantage for at least two rounds and, most importantly, get your bodies right and ready for the two-month grind that begins April 15. In that way, provided Durant rehabs well and his prognosis in four weeks after his medical re-evaluation goes as planned, he probably saved himself some miles on his legs and some pounding on his other joints he doesn’t need heading into April.

It’s not the best scenario. But it beats those faraway looks in the locker room Tuesday night, when Curry and the Warriors sincerely feared their season of hopeful vindication was lost.

Mike Wise is a former senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.