NEW YORK -- Early in the third quarter on Sunday, all eyes were on Kevin Durant. He had the ball in the mid-post against Chris Paul, a smart and sturdy but nevertheless 10 inches shorter defender. Durant, however, did not so much at look in the direction of the basket. As soon as the ball was securely in his hands, he fired it right back to his Brooklyn Nets buddy, Kyrie Irving, who had darted off a flare screen from DeAndre Jordan. Irving cashed the open 3, giving him 27 of the Nets' 67 points.
This was not a particularly extraordinary play, especially compared to the off-the-glass, left-handed floater that Irving would make with Paul draped all over him a few possessions later. It stood out only because of how easy it was. More than any other superstar, Durant makes the game look effortless. He doesn't need to hunt shots to score 33 points on 12-for-21 shooting in 28 minutes, as he did in his return from a left thigh injury. The points seem to find him.
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Shortly before Brooklyn's 128-119 win over the Phoenix Suns at Barclays Center, coach Steve Nash said that Durant's "skill set, the way he can fit into a basketball team is about as perfect as you can be." He can get you a bucket whenever you need one, but he doesn't need to initiate the offense or dominate the ball. It isn't supposed to be this seamless when you haven't played basketball in a week, but Durant looked great when he got back on the floor after his torn Achilles and his hamstring injury, too.
"He seems to come back and his rhythm and timing are excellent," Nash said, adding that, while he doesn't want to diminish how special or impressive this is, he was not surprised.
Durant entered the game with eight minutes left in the first half, like he did following a 23-game absence in New Orleans on April 7, and did the majority of his damage after halftime. He hit a 17-foot runner and his patented transition pull-up 3 over Cameron Johnson, and, directly after that assist to Irving, he set up Jordan for an alley-oop. He finished with four assists, six rebounds, two steals, a block and just one turnover. The Nets were plus-11 with him on the court.
"It's like riding a bike," Durant said. "You get your footing right and you just get your rhythm going and I think my teammates did a great job of looking for me all game. I just wanted to, you know, resort back to that work that I put in, just the shots that I take in practice and shootaround, try to get those as much as possible to gain my rhythm, and I started to get a little bit more creative as the game started to progress."
Phoenix's defense ranks fifth in the league, but it did not disrupt Durant or the Nets. Brooklyn scored 130.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass, its ninth-best mark of the season. Irving scored 24 of his 34 points in the first half and finished 10-for-19 from the field with 12 assists and six rebounds. Blake Griffin had 16 points, five rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes. It was not a standout night for the Nets' defense, but they at least cleaned up their rebounding issues in the second half and got the stops they needed down the stretch.
Nash said he consulted with the team's performance staff before the game and they agreed to limit Durant to 28 minutes. He did not indicate whether or not Durant would start on Tuesday when the Nets visit the Toronto Raptors in Tampa Bay. The goal is to help Durant get his legs back so he can handle a bigger load in the playoffs, but Brooklyn does not want to "overexpose" him, Nash said, and "we're obviously aware of how little basketball he's played in the big picture the last couple years." Like everything else with the Nets this season, they plan to stay flexible from game to game.
"You think big-picture," Nash said. "And I'd rather fall behind and have Kevin in the back pocket than go up and say, 'OK, Kev, you're done' in the third quarter. I think that's kind of the give-and-take with it, and he's been on board with it."
"Coach asked me today if I wanted to start or come off the bench," Durant said. "And I felt like it would be a bigger challenge for me to focus in and lock in if I came off the bench, so I just wanted to see how that worked. And if I would've shot bad, I probably would've been pissed that I came off the bench, but I was able to knock down some shots. It was a solid exercise for me to ease back into the swing of things."
This was Durant's 25th regular-season game in a Brooklyn uniform, including the first four minutes of last Sunday's game in Miami and a pair of 19-minute appearances: the Pelicans game earlier this month and his confusing, out-then-in-then-out-again game against Toronto in February. It also marked just the fourth time he has played in front of fans at Barclays. As strange as the season has been, and as unusual as it might have felt to watch from the bench for the first 16 minutes, Durant said he was simply excited to be out there.
"It was a good start," he said. "Hopefully I build on this game and keep going."
The question, however, is how exactly Durant and the Nets can build on this. With just a few weeks to get ready for the postseason, James Harden is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury and Nicolas Claxton is sidelined due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Regardless of what's happening around Durant this season, he has never delivered less than excellence when he's on the court, one of the few constants for this Brooklyn team. Another constant is its glaring lack of continuity, the consequences of which can't possibly be known until playoff time.