One night after his former team, the Warriors, missed the playoffs for the second straight year since he left, Kevin Durant had the floor to himself. Yes, he was out there with his fellow superstars, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, who sure had their moments against Boston in this Game 1.
But on a certain level Saturday night, given everything Durant has endured, Brooklyn’s Big 3 felt just a little like Brooklyn’s Big 1. KD made his return to the playoffs a very big deal, as he shook off some early best-of-seven rust to lead the Nets with 32 points and 12 rebounds in their grand postseason debut, a 104-93 victory over the Celtics at Barclays Center.
Durant shot 2-for-10 in the first quarter as Boston carried the fight to the home team, and carried the lead into the second half. It didn’t matter. Durant made the shots when it mattered most. His 3-pointer early in the third quarter gave the Nets a lead they never relinquished. His steal and breakaway dunk in the middle of the fourth felt like a knockout punch. He outplayed Jayson Tatum, and the whole night put another punctuation mark on a physical and emotional comeback that should notarize his toughness, and his heart, forevermore.
This comeback was framed, said Nets coach Steve Nash, by a lot of questions “and a lot of doubt. Who knows if he comes back to any level near what he was accustomed to?” This Game 1 performance wasn’t classic Durant domination, but the great ones still get 32 and 12 in the playoffs with their B material.
“It’s always great playing in this time of year,” Durant said. “That intensity is the next level. … It felt great to be out there among the best teams and the best players in the league. Look forward to Game 2.”
The day after Durant blew out his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, I asked Tiger Woods why athletes in championship moments are willing to risk significant injury in pursuit of victory. Woods had famously won the 2008 U.S. Open by playing 91 holes, including an extended playoff, with a torn ACL and a broken leg.
Woods spoke of “how solemn [Durant’s] face went” after he crumbled to the Game 5 court. “And no one can help you,” Woods said.
“That’s the hard part. … That’s what people don’t see, all those long hours that really do suck. And why do we do it? Because we’re competitors.”
We all saw Durant’s competitive spirit that night, how he risked everything — his health, his legacy, and his upcoming free-agent score even though Golden State was trailing the Raptors 3-1, and likely to lose the series regardless. The people who had questioned whether Durant had stayed out too long with his calf injury, or whether he had already, in his mind, abandoned the Warriors for the Knicks or Nets or someone else ended up looking pretty foolish. Durant knew his body like nobody else knew his body. So he had to know, deep down, when he decided to play Game 5 that something could go terribly wrong.
Durant played anyway, a decision that led to surgery before he signed with Brooklyn for four years and $164 million, and joined his guy Irving. Durant spent 18 months on the sideline, skipping Bubble Ball along the way. So Saturday night was a big night in Brooklyn, where Durant stepped back into the playoffs after his old friend Steph Curry was eliminated by Memphis in the play-in tournament.
Now it’s legacy time again for Durant, who can add to the two championships he won with the Warriors. He was widely criticized for leaving Oklahoma City for a Golden State team that had already won a title, that had beaten his Thunder in the conference finals, and that had established itself as a ready-made champ for a superstar in need of a ring. That criticism stung Durant, a sensitive type who has a long memory when it comes to real or imagined slights.
In Brooklyn, he doesn’t have to worry about critics saying he had boarded a train that had already arrived at the station. If the Nets win this championship, no credible voice can tell Durant that it wasn’t self-made.
Not that he deserved any criticism in the first place. Durant knew he would be ultimately judged on his ring collection, so he smartly signed up with Golden State. And then in his final 2019 game, he put everything on the line for that franchise, and paid a heavy price for it.
Kevin Durant made it all the way back to the postseason before the Warriors did, and played 39 winning minutes in Game 1. Once again, with feeling, KD proved that he will go down as an historically great player. And one very tough dude.
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