In the 562 days since Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon, the NBA landscape has morphed several times over. Kawhi Leonard briefly ascended to something close to consensus second-best-player-in-the-NBA-hood after winning a title, Kobe Bryant died, LeBron James won his fourth championship with his third team, Luka Doncic emerged as the NBA’s next superstar, the 76ers went sour, and a pandemic upended the league, forcing them to finish out the 2019-20 season in a hermetically sealed version of Disney Orlando. One would be forgiven for being less than certain about what state Durant would be in upon his return from one of the most devastating possible injuries.
The answer to that question is looks a little clearer after opening night: Durant seems every bit the crusher he was in Golden State.
There is not a great deal you can definitively take away from Brooklyn’s 125-99 romp over Golden State on Tuesday night. Almost every non-Steph Curry Warrior looked like poached butt, but the team was missing Draymond Green, relying heavily on a rookie center who hadn’t played a competitive game in over a year, and clearly reeling from Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear. The Nets seem like an 10-deep team nobody will want any part of next summer, but it was just one game, and, as stated earlier, the Warriors barely showed up. Marv Albert was out there breathing wetly into his microphone while Chris Webber gave his Christmas cookie recipe and Andrew Wiggins horrifically bonked jumpers. The dark, empty arena and its uncanny sounds were more off-putting than bubbleball ever was. A high-level game, this was not.
However, if there was anything meaningful you could truly take from the opener, it was Durant’s form. He’s been in the league for 14 years, after all, and he’s missed the bulk of two seasons with serious right foot injuries. How sharp can he still be? As it turns out, extremely sharp. Durant had a cool 22 points, three assists, and three steals in 25 minutes of easy work. The Nets annihilated the Warriors in every meaningful minute of the game, and the result wasn’t in question after a 40-25 first quarter. Durant went for 10 points in the game’s first five minutes, and more importantly, he looked as smooth and unguardable as ever.
The shot is always going to be there. If Durant’s vertical leap were six inches, he’d still get shots off wherever he wanted. What was most encouraging was how springy and fearless he looked. Durant was diving into the lane, falling over, challenging shots, and appearing to have very little rust from his injury and long layoff. He had great synergy with his teammates, too, as this neat little touch pass demonstrates:
A healthy Durant probably grades out as the league’s second- or third-best player, depending on how you feel about Anthony Davis. The Nets showed what they can be without Durant last year, and that version is not a team of consequence. But when you add someone as untouchable as Durant onto a squad with enviable depth, you have the makings of a something very scary. Durant’s playmaking and defense bloomed in Golden State, and while it was soothing to see him knocking down open shots and throwing down loopy dunks, Durant’s facilitation stood out. He’ll probably close games with three shooters and a strong rim runner around him, and the conjoined threat of his range and passing presents a ton of issues for opponents.
Because the Warriors flopped over and showed their bellies, we cannot tell for sure whether, say, Caris LeVert is the league’s best sixth man or if he was simply being guarded by clowns. That’s not as important as what we do know, however: Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant.