It was just a teaser, the preseason opener against an undermanned Wizards roster resting star guards Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook on Sunday night at an empty Barclays Center. But the return of long-injured superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was a sight to behold in the early stages of a 119-114 victory, one that suggested the duo really can turn the Nets into title contenders.
Durant played for the first time in 18 months after missing last season to recover from Achilles tendon surgery, and Irving sat out the past nine months after undergoing shoulder surgery. But they were dominant in a first half in which the Nets led by as much as 26 points in building a 68-50 halftime advantage.
Irving scored 18 points and shot 7-for-9 in 17 minutes before sitting out the second half. Durant scored all 15 of his points in the first half and played 24 minutes overall, including seven scoreless minutes in the third period.
"Ky was super-sharp, and Kevin, after such an extensive layoff, was very good and close to being incredible," coach Steve Nash said. "He’s going to keep building and getting comfortable. When you have that type of injury, it’s kind of remarkable that he’s at the level he’s at. Those two were great."
Durant said he was "anxious and nervous" when he arrived at Barclays Center.
"I visualized this moment for so long," he said. "I was champing at the bit, especially with COVID because I didn’t see when the season was going to start. I think my rhythm and timing is going to get better as we move on . . . I don’t envision any setbacks."
Durant and Irving looked as if they never had been away, and both handled contact fearlessly.
The opening quarter was an absolute revelation. The Nets finished on an extended 27-13 run for a 38-20 lead, and Durant and Irving each had nine points during that stretch. They totaled 23 in the quarter, and the Nets shot 76.5% from the field in the period (13-for-17).
Durant said it felt good to see all his work pay off. "I didn’t think I played great," he said. "I felt like I had some solid moments, but for the most part, just getting my feet wet playing against somebody like [Rui] Hachimura."
In the second quarter, Durant took a charge from Hachimura that sent him flying, but he was none the worse for wear. "I felt I took that charge earlier, and I’m definitely feeling it right now,’’ he said. "So it’s good to get back in the flow of things, and it definitely gave me some confidence. I just needed to see how I’d play in a real NBA game with refs. So it’s a good step, and I’m trying to build on it."
Irving continued his media boycott and declined to speak after the game, but Durant did it for him. "Kyrie looked incredible,’’ he said. "He’s unstoppable. He’s a master at his craft, so he can pretty much do whatever he wants for us on the floor. He set the tone for us."
The Nets shot 51.4% from the field and 46.7% from three-point range overall. Landry Shamet scored 13 points and Taurean Prince had 11. The Nets also got 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists from Spencer Dinwiddie, who started in place of injured Caris LeVert (patella bruise).
In the end, Durant’s comeback couldn’t have gone better.
"It’s beautiful to see him back out on the court," Nash said. "I think the world missed him out there, and I certainly did. Just to see him running up and down . . . after this devastating injury is because he does have such a passion to play."