CHARLOTTE- The Queen City saw the return of one of the NBA’s finest superstars on Wednesday as Kevin Durant, on his Suns debut, added an efficient 23 point in Phoenix’s 105-91 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
In his first NBA game in 52 days, Durant showed few signs of rust and fatigue while glimpsing the dangers opponents can expect this postseason. Expecting the Suns to fully integrate the 13-time All-Star into the bevy of solid weapons already on the list.
“I missed playing,” Durant said with a white towel draped over his head. “I missed being out on the floor, discussing strategy, just talking to the guys, the camaraderie, all that stuff. I feel like I fit in pretty well. I just gotta keep going man and this jersey on me is going to look normal as games progress. I’m glad to be back out there on the ground today.”
His teammates, meanwhile, expressed their gratitude that Durant chose to do it with them after joining the Suns in a pre-Deadline February 9 trade involving Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, Two-time Finals MVP and TJ Warren sent four first-round picks and a pick swap to Brooklyn.
Durant had not played since suffering a right MCL sprain in Miami on Jan. 8 that resulted in 20 missed games.
So forgive the Suns for pinching themselves immediately after their new teammate hit 10 of 15 off the floor, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, and grabbed six boards and two blocks in nearly 27 minutes of action .
Durant entered with a minute limit that Phoenix head coach Monty Williams said will be gradually lifted over the next few weeks.
“This is one of those moments that doesn’t really feel real,” said Suns guard Devin Booker after scoring 37 points that was a game high. “It’s fun, I can tell you that. You could feel the energy. You could feel the trust in the whole team. That’s what the big ones do. He may not be the loudest in the dressing room, but his work speaks for itself. It’s definitely contagious from top to bottom.”
Here are five takeaways from a highly anticipated night at the Spectrum Center:
Durant is already attracting a lot of attention in a starting lineup that includes Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. But Phoenix envisions at least keeping Booker or Durant grounded with some of the bench lineups.
We saw the Suns tinker with it Wednesday when Durant played minutes with multiple reserves. Surprisingly, in each case, the visitors’ lead only increased when Durant was in action.
“I still have to be me no matter who’s on the floor,” Durant said. “Things worked for us when I was out there with these guys.”
Booker watched Paul in disbelief from the bench.
Meanwhile, Book cooked whenever Durant sat on the bench.
“There’s no such feeling,” Booker said. “I think when it comes down to it there will always be one of us on the pitch, which helps. It is a good feeling.”
Durant Addition makes Suns feel the heat
Williams looked at a room full of reporters to illustrate what he would say if asked about the pressure of landing Durant for a team that already has high expectations.
After leading the Suns to a Finals appearance in just his second season, followed by his West Semifinals berth last year, Williams first joked before clearing up the pressure building as Phoenix sits fourth in the conference with 19 games left . There are recent successes bundled with a new governor in Mat Isbia before you even add a superstar to the generation in Durant.
“You can feel it,” Williams said of the mounting pressure. “You can feel it in the hotel when people are queuing outside. You can feel that in the gym. I think since I’ve been in Phoenix I’ve felt like it’s just going to build up because the guys have been making improvements on the ground. I tried to accept it, but one day at a time. But yes, I feel it. I learned long ago that pressure and expectations are privileges. You have to accept these things. To answer your question, yes. Just look at the room. I feel like I’m at the Geneva Convention or something.”
But does Williams think anything but a title in 2023 is a disappointment for the Suns?
“There’s always a disappointment. There are six or seven teams that think like that, he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say something like that. We don’t even talk about it because we’re not there. No one even said that in our gym because our guys understand we’re not even close.”
Subtle changes ahead?
Phoenix plays a certain style of basketball under Williams, but the coach claims he’s open to finding out how the Suns “may playing,” he said, “as opposed to how we (usually) play, and forcing that on not only Kevin but (other newcomers) Terrence (Ross), (Darius Bazley) and TJ (Warren).”
Williams said he constantly puzzles Durant over drills for “situations” played out on the floor. While also asking about past experiences to uncover specific vulnerabilities that Phoenix may wish to incorporate into its current system.
“Communication is so important in any environment, but especially when you bring someone like Kevin into the game. He’s played in every big game possible,” Williams said. “So why shouldn’t I pick his brain and try to figure out a few things I might not be the best at? I’ve seen him play a slightly different style than us on different teams. You want to know why and why you felt so good about it? Maybe it’s something we can incorporate into our work.”
Booker agreed but realizes that time is ticking.
“We’re halfway through the season, 19 games left, and obviously everyone knows where we’re going and where we’re going,” Booker said. “Well, we have enough talent to do it. I think it will boil down to the details that we need to learn. We do, we’re just trying to get everyone used to the type of basketball we played, the system we were in. At the end of the day, talent will take over.
“Lost in the Game”
Here Durant “looks forward” to finding himself in this process very soon. As good as he felt (and looked) against the Hornets, the two-time NBA champion still plays with a minute limit adjusted to match the feel of his right knee. He has also instituted a more rehabilitation-focused routine that will change as he heals. Add new teammates and different systems to learn on both sides of the ball, and you quickly understand why Durant just wants to feel the joy of playing the game he loves again.
Recall that Durant suffered a similar injury to his left knee in mid-January last season that kept him out of action until March 3. Having already experienced the injury, Durant knows what it takes to make a full recovery.
“I was having fun out there before I got hurt,” Durant said. “I know it will take time to get used to everything early on. But in terms of fun and losing myself in the game, I’m looking forward to that again.”
Durant continues to put in the work to ensure this happens. More than an hour before Wednesday’s tip, the forward completed a rigorous pre-game workout in a darkened hallway that consisted of a variety of stretches and stabilizing moves. Towards the end of the practice session, Durant went through several iterations of stepping on a tall box, where he simulated the two steps a player would take to the basket just before taking off for a layup.
“I’m just going through my routine,” he said. “I was injured. So I’m there a little earlier than guys. I stay a little later. Things I wouldn’t do if I wasn’t injured, I’m doing now. So, that’s probably what you’re seeing. I’ve had a lot of injuries. I’m thinking about what’s best for me during rehab and as I ramp back up to get back into the game I kind of understand what I need to do to be the best version of myself. Then just go with it clear mind, just play, don’t worry about my knee and try not to think about it. The game just told me what to do out there tonight.”
The Suns continue their current four-game road trip Friday in Chicago before Dallas hosts a reunion between Durant and former Nets teammate Kyrie Irving at the American Airlines Center on Sunday.
Williams isn’t sure how he’ll handle Durant’s workload going forward. But it’s worth considering how the manager handled Booker’s return from a groin injury that sidelined him for 21 games. The shooting guard returned from that injury on Feb. 7, but staff kept him out of the Suns’ next game (Feb. 9 in Atlanta) citing return from injury treatment as the reason.
Durant could be considering a similar scenario for Friday’s game against the Bulls.
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Michael C. Wright is senior writer for NBA.com. You can email him Herefind his archive Here and keep following him Twitter.
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