Virtual fans. Fake crowd noise. An insurmountable blowout by the third quarter. Kevin Durant's return to the Bay Area wasn't exactly one to remember.
But then again, it was never going to be. The Golden State Warriors hardly resemble the team that Durant helped lead to two championships in three seasons. Instead of making the unmistakable drive across the Bay Bridge to Oakland leading to the imperfectly perfect Oracle Arena, on Saturday Durant arrived at the state-of-the-art, $1.4 billion Chase Center, which has barely existed long enough for the paint to dry. The last time KD donned the Warriors' Royal Blue and California Golden Yellow was almost two years ago, meaning any lingering vitriol from Durant's infamous clash with Draymond Green or his perceived jealousy toward Steph Curry had long since dissolved.
If you expected to have all the feels during the Brooklyn Nets' 134-117 victory over the Warriors on Saturday night, you disappointingly came away with none of them.
"There wasn't many emotions, it's just a basketball game," Green said of playing against Durant for the first time since 2016. "I think a lot of emotions usually come from the buildup to things. There's not much buildup in these weird times."
It was fitting though, when you really think about it. Durant's Warriors tenure ended with an Oracle crowd as silent as the Chase Center's on Saturday, as fans watched the Toronto Raptors celebrate the title in the last-ever NBA game in the building. Durant, of course, wasn't even there -- he was at home, recovering from a torn Achilles that unceremoniously ended Golden State's run of five straight Finals appearances. The disappointment of a COVID-era homecoming with no fans mirrors the disappointment of the abrupt end to the Warriors' dynasty.
In terms of the actual game, overwhelming star power slowly and methodically suffocated the opposition, only this time it was the Warriors on the receiving end of the Nets' basketball Cerberus of Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. A third-quarter blitz, previously a regular occurrence for the Warriors, saw the Nets double their halftime lead to 26 points, rendering the fourth quarter a mere formality. The Brooklyn trio showcased chemistry and selflessness echoing that of the Warriors' historic quartet of Durant, Green, Curry and Klay Thompson.
Durant finished with 20 points. Curry scored 27, but made just 2-of-9 3-pointers. Green continued his habit of filling up the stat sheet with six points, eight assists and seven rebounds. All the while, Thompson watched from the sideline as he continues to rehabilitate the same Achilles injury from which Durant has so admirably recovered.
In the end, however, this night was never about the game. It was about the members of one of the most impressive basketball teams ever assembled acknowledging and reflecting upon past glory. Aplayed on the video board inside the arena. Durant and Green shared a laugh while lined up next to each other during a free throw. Curry and Thompson each embraced Durant, briefly and safely, after the game. Those four, along with head coach Steve Kerr, share a bond that will never be taken away from them, no matter how unsatisfying the final season and Durant's subsequent departure might have been.
"I remember a level of basketball that I don't think has ever been reached before," Kerr said prior to Saturday's matchup, specifically recalling Game 5 of the Warriors' 2017 title win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. "It just looked like the future of basketball, with 10 supremely skilled basketball players on the court all at once and no traditional big men and the floor, spread. ... That level of play, I remember walking away from that game just thinking, there's never been a better level of offensive force in a basketball game, ever, than what we just saw."
Curry shared a similar sentiment, saying that Durant's three seasons with Golden State were "some of the best basketball that I think the world has ever seen." He also appreciates the sacrifice every player made for the ultimate prize.
"The ability to put that much talent and experience together and make it work, there was no guarantee that it was going to work, and we figured it out, and it was an amazing run -- one that when it's all said and done, we'll remember the heights that we accomplished and achieved. That was an amazing three years."
Everyone has an opinion on Durant's decision to join the Warriors coming off of an NBA-record 73-win season. Debates will rage about whether Golden State would have been able to continue its Finals runs even if KD hadn't signed with them. As with anything great, we're also left with the nagging question of what could have been if Durant decided to re-sign with the Warriors instead of joining Brooklyn.
But the lesson we've all learned over the past year is that it's unhealthy to spend time contemplating what could have been. Instead of lamenting the inability to gather among friends, we can remember an incredible night and text our buddies an inside joke about it.
Thompson's injured. Curry and Green are fighting for their playoff lives with an unfamiliar group. Durant is attempting to start a new dynasty in Brooklyn. As they all showed on Saturday night, however, it never hurts to spend some time reminiscing about an unforgettable experience.
"My time here in Golden State was so much fun," Durant said after the game. "It's such a big learning experience, especially learning the game of basketball and a different philosophy. I'm going to take that with me for the rest of my life."