NEW YORK — Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors were trying to extend their stay atop the NBA when he crumbled to the court with a ruptured Achilles tendon on June 10, 2019.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP was lost and so soon was the Warriors' grasp on the championship. Golden State's title was gone a couple nights later and eventually so was Durant, who left for Brooklyn as a free agent after having surgery.
Now both are ready to start working their way back.
Durant's first official NBA game in a year and a half comes against his old club, as the Nets host the Warriors on Tuesday night in the opening game of the 2020-21 season.
The matchup feels like a bigger night than usual in Brooklyn — just not to Durant.
“I feel like each game is important to me and it’s no more of importance because I’m playing against my old teammates,” Durant said. “I just feel like the game of basketball is going to have me on that level anyway and it’s going to be good to see some of my old teammates, good to play against them, good to see some of the people I worked with in my time in Golden State, but nothing more than that.”
Same feeling from the Warriors.
“It’ll be cool to see him out there and all those pleasantries and then get to just competing,” Stephen Curry said. “I think that’s what we all expect.”
Durant played three seasons with the Warriors and was bidding to have them all end with championships. He returned from a calf injury to play Game 5 in Toronto with Golden State down 3-1 and was off to a strong start before he went down in the second quarter. The Warriors held on to win that night, shaking off the sadness of Durant's injury.
“They were heartbroken,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.
And they haven't been the same since.
With Durant gone, Klay Thompson injured last season and Curry missing nearly all of it, Golden State went from dynasty to dismal. The Warriors have won just 15 times in 560 days since Durant went down, finishing with the worst record in the league in the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 season after five straight trips to the NBA Finals.
The teams were scheduled to meet March 12 in San Francisco, the day after the season was suspended. Durant wouldn't have played then and downplayed what the importance of a victory now would mean, saying he has a lifelong bond with his old mates.
“I mean, if winning a basketball game is going to give me closure for three years then I really didn’t have a good time there I guess,” Durant said.
Despite the severity of his injury and length of his absence, expectations are high that Durant will return to the level that made him a four-time scoring champion who has averaged 27 points. He looked sharp in both of Brooklyn's exhibition games, though said it will take some time before he's at his best.
“I mean, I’ve always been comfortable with a basketball in my hands," Durant said. "But physically not being able to run up and down the court, it’s going to take me more than two or three games to feel like I’m in midseason form, I guess, physically.”
He looks good already to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who watched the Nets rout Boston in their exhibition finale.
“I didn’t know what to expect given that it’s been really a year and a half since his last game, but I could not tell one difference between seeing him 18 months ago and seeing him the other night,” Kerr said. “He looks great, he’s smiling, he’s out there doing his thing and I’m really happy for him.”
The Nets, with Kyrie Irving also returning after playing just 20 games last season because of a shoulder injury, have enough depth and balance that they may not need Durant to be great right away.
Curry may not have that luxury. Thompson will miss another season after injuring his Achilles tendon preparing for this one and Draymond Green will sit out the opener with a right foot injury that sidelined him in the preseason, though Kerr said No. 2 pick James Wiseman is available after his late start to the preseason.
With so many of the championship-winning Warriors not in the game and an unusual scene with no fans in the arena, Kerr said the game won't seem quite as strange as if the Warriors had played Durant when they were still on top.
“The circumstances are all crazy,” he said, “but it’s been a year and half and so you throw all that into the mix and it’s a totally different vibe.”
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Brian Mahoney, The Associated Press