CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant made his Phoenix Suns debut Wednesday night against the Charlotte Hornets.
Durant, wearing No. 35, was greeted by a loud ovation as he was introduced at Spectrum Center and fans held up cell phones stretching to get video of him in his white jersey.
He missed a foul line jumper on his team’s first possession, but scored his first basket with the Suns a few moments later on a driving left-handed layup. Durant followed with a block on Hornets rookie center Mark Williams and then knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing as the Suns bolted to a 9-0 lead.
Durant finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks, while shooting 10-of-15 from the field (including 2-of-4 from three-point range), as the Suns beat the Hornets 105-91.
He is expected to be on a minutes restriction as he makes his way back from a knee injury that has held him out since Jan. 8.
The 13-time All-Star was acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster deal in which the Suns parted ways with Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and four first-round picks.
Like Durant's previous stops in Seattle, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Brooklyn, the expectations are high — and there is a different level of excitement with his arrival.
“You feel it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “You feel it at the (team) hotel when people are lined up outside. You feel it in the gym. ... Yeah, I feel it. I learned a long time ago that pressure and expectations are a privilege and you have to embrace those things because that is where the good stuff is.”
Williams admitted that anything less than an NBA championship this season would feel like a disappointment, but added that is true of any of the league’s top teams.
Durant’s has been through plenty during his 15-year NBA career, but this is the first time he’s joined a new team midway through the season.
“I have a lot of experience in the league, so the transition was a little easier than it would have been 10 years ago,” Durant said following practice Tuesday. “It’s a quick turnaround and everything happened so fast. But the game is the constant thing.”
The Suns hope Durant’s addition gets them over the hump after losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The Suns were in fourth place in the Western Conference at 33-29 entering play Wednesday — a game ahead of another of his former teams, the Warriors, with 20 remaining. Phoenix was 10 1/2 games behind the West-leading Denver Nuggets.
Williams expects Durant will have a major positive impact on his new teammates, which include Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
“He’s more than a generational talent, he’s a historic talent,” Williams said. “From that standpoint you can use your imagination, just from a scoring standpoint. But I have tried to have an open mind about it not to box him in and say ‘he’s going to be this, this and that.’ So I’m looking forward to it as much as everybody else is.”
Durant remains at the top of his game, averaging 29 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 55.9% from the field and 37.6% from 3-point range this season.
Hornets coach Steve Clifford said the Suns are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.
“They now have the number one thing that you have to have to win close games in the playoffs – they have two guys who can draw help without the aid of the pick-and-roll,” Clifford said. “So if you just give Booker the ball, you have to help. You can’t guard him one-on-one. If you give Kevin the ball, nobody can guard him one-on-one. Nobody. Then you throw in the Chris Paul pick-and-roll piece with Ayton, the way he’s grown.
“Playoff basketball is going to come down to, and it’s always been the same thing, how many guys on the court can get a shot on their own, and then what can they do when they draw help? And they’re two of the best guys in the league. It certainly puts them in the conversation.”
Durant has spent the past couple of weeks getting to know his new teammates on a personal level, as well as how they operate on the floor while mostly watching from the sideline as he recovers from a sprained knee that has kept him out since Jan. 8.
He said his knee has been pain-free for the last couple of weeks.
He’s been trying to visualize where he fits into the Suns’ system and how he can have the biggest impact while learning the team’s plays.
“I know my versatility can help me a lot of different areas on both ends of the court,” Durant said. “Being able to shoot the ball from different areas of the floor can help me, even if I don’t know every small subtlety in a play I can still try to figure out just by movement and stuff.”