After almost two months away, Kevin Durant finally made his return to the court. It was short, but it was spectacular.
And it was victorious.
Durant came back from his hamstring injury to help lead the Nets not only to a 139-111 domination of the Pelicans before 1,773 at Barclays Center, but also into first place in the Eastern Conference.
As James Harden watched from the bench with a hamstring strain, Durant returned after missing 23 straight games with his own hamstring strain. Wednesday’s rout was his first action since Feb. 13 at Golden State, and his first game ever in front of Nets fans.
Durant missed last season recovering from a ruptured Achilles, and COVID-19 forced the Nets to start this season without fans in Barclays Center. Their first taste of their star player was a sweet one. He had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists, a plus-17 in just 19 minutes off the bench.
Kyrie Irving had a team-high 24 points and six assists, and LaMarcus Aldridge added 22 points. But Durant was perfect from the floor (5-for-5), from beyond the 3-point arc (2-for-2) and from the charity stripe (5-for-5). In true MVP fashion, he opened up the game for everybody else.
“I would concur. He’s one of the greatest players of all time,” coach Steve Nash said. “He’s able to play in almost any style: he’s able to post up, he’s able to isolate and able to play off screens, and he’s able to play with the ball. He’s excellent in transition, he’s able to facilitate for his teammates so he’s able to do so many different things and play in so many different ways that it’s remarkable.
“In a sense it’s unique to have a superstar that [is like that] … If you’re ever able to bring someone in and have less turbulence, it’s Kevin. He doesn’t need the ball all the time. He’s able to produce with or without the ball, and he has so many different roles in scoring.”
One new role was coming off the bench. It was only the second time in Durant’s career that he has done so. The first came earlier this season, when contact tracing left him a last-minute scratch before he eventually was allowed to play. Wednesday was the second, a move that let Nash both stagger Durant and Irving, and monitor the forward’s minutes.
But the way the Nets blew out New Orleans, it turns out monitoring his minutes wasn’t needed. The Nets shot 55.4 percent and 19-for-41 from deep, and they led by as many as 38 points.
“We’ll definitely be careful with [Durant]. We’re not gonna send him out there to play 35 minutes,” Nash said. “But we’ll see how the game goes and figure out what the best process is for him to stay safe first and foremost, to get time and basketball back in his legs in a real environment.
“The goal is for him to reincorporate into the team safely, to give him one more step, an extended step of that process we just talked about, not to get out here and free to play as he normally does and put the demands on him that he hopefully will be able to handle in the short future, near-term future.”
By the time Durant took off his warmups and strode to the scorer’s table in the second quarter, bringing the fans to their feet, the Nets were already in control. When he checked in with 7:37 left in the half — to a roar — they led 53-44.
Durant hit a 14-foot turnaround off a feed from Irving to put the Nets up 58-46 with 6:42 left in the half. Durant and his Nets were off to the races, blowing the game wide open in a display made all the more impressive by how shorthanded they were.
Sure, the Pelicans (22-29) played sans Brandon Ingram. But the Nets were without Harden, Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie.
The Nets (36-16) pulled a half-game ahead of the idle Philadelphia 76ers, and sit alone atop the Eastern Conference.
Irving had 20 first-half points to give the Nets a 79-59 lead at the break. It was their highest-scoring half of the season and tied for the third-highest first half in team history. But arguably more impressive was Durant being a plus-11 in just 7:37.
He opened up the second with a spot-up 3, and even stood his ground against a full-speed Zion Williamson (16 points) to take a charge. The call was overturned by a Pelicans challenge, but it was an auspicious sign for Durant’s health.
The Nets opened it up to 120-82 early in the fourth on a 3 by Chris Chiozza, and the rest of the game was garbage time.