It wasn’t the exact spot, but the same gait, the same pace for Kevin Durant when he announced to the basketball world that the torch was his three years ago.
That pull-up triple he hit in LeBron James’ face in the NBA Finals was easy money, be it with the Golden State Warriors or against them, in a crowded arena or an empty gym, at grand opening or grand closing.
The reasons why Durant didn’t receive his due flowers are myriad, but mostly invalid. The fact he’s putting the world on notice that he’s coming to reclaim what’s his matters less about the prologue but more on what’s to come.
It’s hard to truly evaluate where the Brooklyn Nets sit in the pantheon of anything thus far. It’s one game, against a Golden State team without Draymond Green in the short term and Klay Thompson for the season.
The expectations are sky high, as they should be. There’s plenty of talent around Barclays Center, including Kyrie Irving, but Durant is the reason we’re all here, expecting him to defy modern sports history to deliver tantalizing performances that make us rethink hierarchies and lists.
Durant has never been forgotten about in the basketball consciousness, but so much has happened since we last saw him — and even longer since he was properly evaluated as a player who belongs to history.
LeBron has added another ring, and before that, Kawhi Leonard temporarily snatched the crown in Toronto. Giannis Antetokounmpo has won a couple MVPs and now, Luka Doncic is coming as a popular choice for MVP this season.
But you can’t forget about Durant, even in the midst of watching a team with so many weapons who can explode at any time.
That pull-up jumper looked easy, and the moment Eric Paschall closed out and gave him the baseline, Durant’s explosion looked intact when he blew by the youngster for an easy dunk.
The 22 points in 25 minutes doesn’t seem worthy of such a proclamation, but the smoothness and the totality of his game felt so familiar, you almost forgot by his last season in Golden State he matured as a playmaker in addition to growing as a defender the previous two seasons.
“I don’t have to show anybody anything,” said Durant, acknowledging his reputation as a deadly scorer. “Whatever they gravitate to, they gravitate to. I don’t wanna prove myself but do whatever my coach wants me to do. Any given night I can showcase my full skill set.”
What the Warriors helped cultivate, they saw play a part in the destruction. Thievery here, a backdoor pass to a cutting Joe Harris there — it’s OK to say it aloud.
The best player in basketball is back.
“All I’m saying is, there’s a big difference from taking 18 months off from the NBA to coming back,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He looks like Kevin, plays like Kevin, but I don’t want to raise expectations.”
Nash is pragmatic with his tone to temper things. There’s a first half to this season, a second half to this season, a damned pandemic to work through. It’s a long journey, and even getting back on the floor to look like a competent player feels like a long way away when you have to learn how to walk again, let alone overtake a LeBron James who’s very close to his prime.
“He has an eye for the long game,” Nash said. “A lot of steps to be taken, still. He’s grateful for the process. He’s just enjoying his health and ability to play the game. He’s not getting carried away with the chatter. He’s just finding his game again.”
Maybe that’s why Durant seemed so demure after the game. A laid-back fellow to begin with, his mood was subject for the “Inside the NBA” crew to poke fun at in a way only they can.
Kevin Durant seemed like he’d rather be doing anything but a postgame interview with TNT.
The ‘Inside the NBA’ crew got a laugh out of it. pic.twitter.com/eXT0IIqTNb
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) December 23, 2020
Perhaps it’s the marathon he’s thinking of or even his constantly speculated state of mind, which is always fodder and part of the Durant package.
“I know it’s a lot of emotions. I got so many calls and texts,” Durant said on a postgame video news conference. “I try not to make too big of a deal of this whole thing. I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old.”
He entered the NBA as a certified bucket and became unstoppable soon after. Now, understated as it can feel, he’s a one-man contender, even in a loaded Eastern Conference, even coming off the worst injury a player can rebound from.
For all the hullabaloo about James’ impressive Finals streak, there’s only been one time a healthy Durant didn’t take his team to the conference finals over the last decade: 2013, when the Thunder lost Russell Westbrook in the first round to a knee injury and fell to the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 2.
The ceiling of a Durant-led team is the final four. Irving being a wild card adds more drama, and Irving’s injury history creates interesting decisions for the Nets’ front office for the champagne dreams it has.
Durant’s biggest challenge could be as the beacon for a young team, a stabilizing force on a team with Irving, who can be a polarizing personality.
But for now, he passed this recent test, this first public one. And whether he says it or not, it seems clear he has bigger goals in mind.
“We gotta take it day by day. He’s here because of his hard work and determination,” Nash said. “I don’t expect every night to be amazing. He needs time to adapt, still.”
If this is just a step, the rest of the NBA should be running scared.
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