When Kevin Durant courageously decided to suit up for Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals and give it a go on what we now know was a calf tear that was dangerously close to becoming a torn Achilles tendon, he did it for two reasons. First, he loves to play basketball. He's a hooper, through and through, and he knew he could help the Golden State Warriors get back into a series in which they found themselves trailing 3-1 to the Toronto Raptors.
Second, and perhaps this is the most important consideration: Durant knew how great he was, and is, and that even a worst-case scenario injury would not compromise his ability to command max money as a free agent that summer. Very few players on the planet could tear an Achilles, considered the most catastrophic injury in the sport, and immediately receive a max contact with the knowledge that he won't even set foot on the floor until the second year of that deal.
Durant is one of those players. The Brooklyn Nets paid him over $38 million last season and he never put on a uniform. All along, this season was tabbed as the payoff, the first season in which a healthy Durant and Kyrie Irving would join forces for a championship run.
Much of that equation has changed. Irving basically disappeared from the team for personal reasons, and the Nets have since traded for James Harden. But through it all, Durant has been beyond sensational, even by his lofty standards. Through his first 10 games of the season, Durant is shooting 54.8 percent from the field (career high) and 48 percent from 3 (career high). Per Cleaning the Glass, he's also posting career highs in effective field-goal percentage (62.5) and points per 100 shot attempts (136.6) while finishing inside the restricted area at an absurd 82 percent clip, another career high.
When you consider the career Durant has had to this point, how historically productive and efficient he's been from Day 1, to think he's posting career highs in this many categories, small sample size or not, is remarkable. The rationale in giving Durant a max deal despite the Achilles tear was that even 85 or 90 percent of Durant was better than just about anyone in the world. He hasn't missed a beat. He's 100 percent of his old self.
Look at all the different ways he cooked in scoring 42 points vs. Orlando on Saturday:
That is one game, but it's all you need to see. He's been doing all of that all season long -- pulling up off the dribble, cashing 3s, posting up, exploding to and finishing strongly at the rim. Look at him hitting the brakes on Will Barton and stepping back into a 3 last week:
The game looks as easy as it always has for Durant, and physically there is absolutely zero sign that he has lost even a fraction of a step. And now he's got Harden creating even more open looks for him? Look how easily Harden sucks the entire defense into the lane before finding a camped-out Durant on the kick out:
On those rare occasions that Brooklyn's offense stalls, Durant and Harden can just run pick-and-roll with their eyes closed and watch the defense scramble to decide between two virtually indefensible options.
Entering Monday, Durant is second in league in scoring at 30.7 points a night while adding 6.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists. The Nets, most importantly, have outscored opponents by 11.2 points during his minutes, which registers as the second-best mark among the top 150 scorers in the league, trailing only his teammate Irving.
Oh by the way, Durant has now scored at least 25 points in nine straight games, a Nets franchise record. This is the player who had a legitimate case as the best player in the world the last time we saw him play. We had tried for years to put other names in that conversation alongside LeBron James, but Durant was the only one who ever really belonged (and maybe Stephen Curry in 2015-16).
Durant is just a gorgeous basketball player. There's no other way to put it. And any thought that he might not ever be quite the same as he was for the first 12 years of his career has already been put to bed.