In a very real sense, Kevin Durant’s appearance with the Nets in a much-awaited, nationally-televised game Saturday night at Golden State was symbolic of him coming full circle.
Not simply in the sense of appearing against his former team in the Bay Area for the first time since signing with the Nets in free agency but more so in terms of his comeback from the ruptured right Achilles tendon he suffered in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals when he tried to play through a previous ankle injury to help Golden State.
It was a long journey covering more than 18 months by the time Durant began the delayed start of the 2020-21 season in December with the Nets. But in the 18 games he has played for the Nets (15-12), Durant has stamped himself as one of the league’s leading MVP candidates while averaging 29.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.4 blocked shots and shooting 44.9% from three-point range before facing Golden State.
Recalling his long rehab process, Durant said, "Right before the coronavirus hit [last March] as I was starting to feel good and I was playing a lot and playing pickup every day, and for that to stop for probably a month and a half to two months as I was building up momentum, I think probably was the most frustrating part. Not getting in the gym, not having 10 guys to run and bump against you, so that streak I was on playing every day and feeling more and more like a player again, it just stopped like everything else in the world. I had such a good rhythm, I wish it had kept going, but that’s probably the lowest point."
Since his return, Durant has missed two games for rest and has missed six other games as a result of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols. He has continued to test negative after being exposed to others who tested positive. But when he has been on the floor, the Nets have been thrilled with the results.
"I mean, he has met every expectation at least," coach Steve Nash said. "I think I have had the luxury of seeing him a bunch of times through this process, so I kind of had a glimpse as to how good he looked and I knew how hard he was working and the preparation he put in.
"Typically, you wouldn’t expect him to play at this level, especially this early, but we’ve seen it. We’ve seen him in offseason and training camp. So we expected this in a sense, but that shouldn’t take away from how astonishing it is that he’s able to come back from that type of injury and be the player that he always was with the explosiveness and dexterity at his size and the incredible accuracy with his shotmaking . . . It shows his body is feeling strong and he’s done all the hard work."
Following Durant’s departure, Golden State went into a decline the first season without him and still is missing injured Klay Thompson, but Steph Curry has that franchise back in the playoff hunt this season. So Durant was eager to play alongside Kyrie Irving and James Harden, who was not yet with the Nets when they routed Golden State in the season opener at Barclays Center.
"You know they’re going to move the ball at a high clip," Durant said of Golden State. "Steph is shooting the basketball as well as he’s ever shot it. The basket looks wide-open for him . . . It should be a different game than it was the first game. Obviously, we incorporated James into our lineup, so we will see how it goes and I’m looking forward to the competition."