Kevin Durant’s having a career year, even if Steph Curry won Round 1
When Steph Curry and his Golden State Warriors walked into Barclays Center on Tuesday night, they knew that they were squaring off against the Eastern Conference’s hottest team.
Wanting to make amends for their Sunday loss to the Charlotte Hornets, the Warriors had some extra pep in their step. And they knew they needed it.
After all, they were squaring off against the best version of Kevin Durant we’ve ever seen.
By his own admission, when Durant decided to take his talents to Brooklyn, it was done at least partially because he wanted less noise in the foreground. Basketball, he said, was all he cared about.
The glamour, the glitz, the flashing lights and the celebrities, Durant said, wasn’t attractive to him.
At this point, it’s hard to argue with the results.
As of Nov. 17, most NBA teams have played about 15 games, and for Brooklyn, Tuesday night’s contest against the visiting Warriors happened to be exactly that. And remarkably, it took exactly that long for Durant to turn in his first effort of the season in which he made fewer than seven field goals. More impressively, though, was that it took Durant all of 15 games to shoot less than 44% from the field during a contest.
Any lingering doubt as to whether he could recapture his past form after suffering a devastating Achilles tendon injury (and missing an entire season as a result) has been answered. Rather emphatically, at that.
We all remember the sad scene.
At 30 years old, in the NBA Finals, one of the game’s all-time greats helplessly sat on the hardwood at Scotiabank Arena. Torn Achilles — the two worst words a basketball player can possibly hear.
From the time he confirmed his diagnosis and ensuing surgery on Twitter, we all knew that the road back for Durant would be difficult. Not Rudy Gay, not Chauncey Billups and not even the late, great Kobe Bryant were the same after they suffered the same injury.
We hoped, that somehow, despite scores of contrary examples, he could be close to the same. Merely recapturing his previous form was believed to be a long shot, but while he silently and steadfastly attacked his rehab in Brooklyn, Durant was determined to make fools of us all.
Somehow, miraculously, he’s been better.
Now 33 years old, it’s amazing that we’ve spent more time getting a taste of Durant as an early-season MVP candidate than we have lamenting the fact that he’s no longer the same player. We’ve spent less time talking about his injury than we have Kyrie Irving or Ben Simmons, and that’s saying something.
But although it may seem like ancient history at this point — due to Durant missing the entire 2019-20 season and the Toronto Raptors playing the 2020-21 season in Tampa — he played his first game back at Scotiabank Arena since the crushing moment on Nov. 7.
It was like returning to the scene of a crime, except the accused had already been exonerated.
“The last time I was here was one of my lowest moments as a basketball player, but it’s good to come back here and see the fans and get a W,” Durant said after he casually led the Nets to a 116-103 win.
This was just another day at the office — 31 points on 11-for-19 shooting from the field to go along with 7 rebounds and 7 assists — and he reflected on the long path back following the victory.
“I’m proud of all the people that’s sacrificed their time to help me through this long period, this tough period, because I was a burden on a lot of people mentally," Durant said. "You never knew how I was gonna approach the day. But so many people took their time with me and helped me through this. I’m just proud that they stuck with me, obviously I was gonna do the work but they made sure I was doing the right work, so I appreciate those who were there for me.”
For the most part, many of the lingering questions about Durant’s ability to play at a high level were answered during last season. In 35 games, he recorded per-game averages of 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists on what was — remarkably — a career-best 53.7% shooting percentage. He also shot a career-best 45% from three-point territory.
Wanting to ramp him up though, Brooklyn obviously pitch-counted Durant, and the questions as to whether he could stand up to the rigors of a long season persisted. He mostly put those doubts to rest with an inspiring performance during last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.
But this season has been something different entirely.
So it was impossible to not recognize the irony on a random Tuesday night in mid-November.
Durant took the court against the team he won a pair of championships with, and entered the contest having been the best version of himself that we’ve ever seen. And he did so after he left them on crutches just over two years ago.
Even without Irving, Durant managed to not only regain his form, but improve dramatically. He entered play on Nov. 16 having played every game for the Nets this season, averaging an incredible 29.6 points per game. The scoring output would be his highest since he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2014 and the third-highest of his career. His 58.6% shooting from the field coming in was absurdly high, and about five points higher than what his career-best last season was. There are big men in the league who don’t leave the paint who can’t approach that mark. Durant, on the other hand, attempts only 13% of his shots from within three feet of the basket.
For the most part, he’s made a living by being an incredibly proficient mid-range and three-point shooter, and he’s only improved upon that while in Brooklyn. It’s no coincidence that he entered Tuesday night’s contest as the league’s leading scorer, as well as an early favorite for MVP.
In the end, Durant had a miserable night against his former club — 19 points in a 117-99 loss in which for had his worst shooting performance of the season (6-for-19).
For Durant, though, at least this season, that’s been the exception. It’s a blip.
There’s a long way to go still, but Durant has shown us that impossible is nothing. At least in some cases, it’s possible to save your best for last, even when the odds are against it.
Someway, somehow, even after the relative dud on Tuesday night, Durant still leads the NBA in both total points (434) and points per game (28.9) while taking the 15th-most attempts (18.8) on average. He’s been so good that he’s helped everyone forget that Brooklyn is missing one of its Big Three, and that the other member of the triad, James Harden, is having his worst season in quite some time.
“When you're playing against a guy like Kevin, you're never just stopping him,” Draymond Green said after the Warriors got their win on Tuesday night. “You're never locking him down. It's always going to come down to a matter of whether he misses or makes shots, and you just try to make those shots as tough as you can.”
Green spoke about Durant with the ultimate respect.
It was almost as if KD's Achilles injury never happened at all.
In fact, it’s almost as if it hasn’t.