Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving shine in preseason homecoming
By Sopan Deb
It’s rare that an NBA preseason game is must-see television.
But Sunday night’s matchup featuring the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards might have been the most anticipated preseason game in New York basketball history. Steve Nash roamed the sidelines for the first time as head coach.
But more important for Nets fans and the franchise, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, one of the most talented duos in the league with a combined 16 All-Star selections, took the floor for the first time as teammates after injuries forced Durant to miss all of last season and limited Irving to 20 games.
The Nets won, 119-114, at Barclays Center but what mattered was the product on the floor: Durant and Irving looked every bit the All-Stars they have been their entire careers.
Let’s put in a caveat here: It was one preseason game. One. Preseason. Game. Players aren’t in shape yet. They are rusty. Coaches are still figuring out their personnel.
But preseason or not, Durant and Irving mostly looked like the same players, and that alone is enough reason for Nets brass to be optimistic about their championship aspirations for the 2020-21 season. If this was what the rusty versions of Durant and Irving could do, what will the in-rhythm ones look like?
It took all of 46 seconds to get Nets fans salivating, when Durant, who won the MVP award in 2014, drove along the baseline on the left side for an open dunk. It was his first basket in a game since Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, when Durant tore his right Achilles tendon, one of the most serious injuries a basketball player can suffer.
But Durant showed minimal sign of that injury. He made all three of his field goals in the first quarter and looked spry running up and down the court. He finished the first half with 15 points on eight shots. One of the best scorers in the history of the NBA, Durant pulled out moves he had refined before his injury, like his one-footed fadeaway. He was also active defensively, blocking two shots and taking a charge.
Durant said afterward that he didn’t think he had played particularly well, but that the game was a “good first step.”
“It felt great to get back in the routine and get back on the floor and feel like a player again,” Durant said. “It felt great. Everybody’s texting and calling asking me how I’m feeling. So I can’t wait to get back into the swing of things so I feel like one of the guys.”
After the game ended, a smiling Durant exchanged hugs with his teammates and several Wizards players, including his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook.
“The beauty of Kevin, obviously on top of all the ability he brings to the game, is his love for the game,” Nash said after the game. “He brings a childlike joy and a love for the game every day when he comes to work. So it’s beautiful to see him back on the basketball court. I think the world missed him out there.”
Irving was not any different, matching Durant shot for shot early on. In the first half, Irving went 7 of 9 from the field for 18 points and added four assists before checking out for good. While Durant is one of the best shot-makers in NBA history, Irving is one of the best dribblers the league has ever seen. That ability was on full display Sunday night, as he easily made creative angles on jumpers.
“That’s one of the perks of this position is you get to coach two incredible players,” Nash said. “Ky was super sharp and Kevin, after such an extensive layoff, was very good and close to being incredible. He’s going to keep building and getting comfortable. When you have that kind of injury, it’s kind of remarkable that he’s at the level he’s at.”
Entering the game, there was some intrigue over what kind of offense Irving and Durant wanted to run, as a result of an Instagram Live session the two held Saturday. During their talk, Irving argued that he should receive eight post-ups a game, because of the mismatch he thought it would create.
This would be a highly unconventional use of a point guard, typically the quarterback of the offense from outside the 3-point line. Durant disagreed with Irving’s assessment, saying, “I don’t think that’s good for the continuity of our offense if our point guard always wants to be underneath the rim.” As they continued to debate the finer points of Irving’s proposal, Durant essentially ended the conversation with, “We’re going to see, though.”
Irving did not receive the ball much under the basket Sunday night, like he had pitched. He didn’t need to. He got his shots off as he had his entire career: whenever and wherever he wanted.
“Kyrie looked incredible,” Durant said. “I mean, he’s unstoppable. He’s a master at his craft. So he could do pretty much whatever he wants out on the floor. He set the tone for us.”
Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie said after the game that he was “not too surprised” by the strong play of Durant and Irving.
“They’re phenomenal scorers, obviously,” Dinwiddie said. “And best friends. So I think the flow and the vibe that they’re going to have is going to be one of the best duos in the league, if not the best duo in the league.”