James Harden might be league’s MVP but Kevin Durant is the Nets’

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Kristian Winfield, New York Daily News
·3 min read
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It happened with just under eight minutes to go in the second quarter.

The Barclays Center crowd grew anxious as Kevin Durant, who was announced a starter after missing 23 games with a hamstring injury, was replaced in the starting lineup by Bruce Brown at tipoff. That anxiety grew palpable as coach Steve Nash deployed 10 other players in the first quarter alone.

Was everything OK? Did Durant suffer a setback? Would a socially-distant and almost sold-out crowd have to wait another day to see the best player in the City?

No. No. And ultimately, hell no.

Durant returned on Wednesday night and powered the Nets to a 139-111 victory over the Pelicans. More than any basket or assist or rebound or steal he logged, it was his presence that opened the floodgates for a blowout.

The party started at Barclays Center with 7 minutes and 50 seconds to go in the second quarter. That may have been by design: Nash subbed his ace in when his team took an early nine-point lead.

Durant’s slim, seven-foot frame sauntered off the bench to the nearest baseline, where he did a hopscotch-like warmup under the basket. Then he walked up the sidelines, donning the brightest of bright yellow sneakers, and sat on the scorer’s table. Kyrie Irving hit the ground shortly after, prompting a whistle from the nearest official.

Durant, accompanied by Nash, looked up at the jumbotron, then took off his warmup shirt. The number seven and his last name approached the hardwood for the first time since Feb. 13, when he strained his hamstring in San Francisco against his former Warriors teammates.

The anxiety disappeared and out came excitement and confidence. It was party time in Brooklyn, and the guest of honor finally arrived.

It didn’t take long for Durant to get his first bucket. The self-proclaimed “Easy Money Sniper” first cashed in on a mid-range shot created by a pindown screen. He scored again shortly after, attacking in transition for a contested layup.

Durant finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes. He did not miss any of his five shots. He did not miss any of his five free throws. He was mobile defensively, and he turned the ball over six times, but that’s expected of a star who hasn’t played in nearly two months.

The Nets outscored the Pelicans by 22 in his 19 minutes on the floor. The box score only told half the story.

James Harden may very well be the league’s Most Valuable Player this season, but as it pertains to Nets’ championship hopes, Durant is the MVP in Brooklyn. His presence on the floor sent the Pelicans’ defense into disarray. He has gravity, that is, the command of defensive respect without having the ball in his hands. That gravity created open shots, open lanes, and turned the Pelicans’ shell defense into Swiss cheese.

When Durant checked in the game, the Nets were up nine. By the time he retired for the night at the end of the third quarter, the Nets were up 115-82.

The Nets had won 20 of the 23 games Durant missed. With him back, they looked unbeatable, albeit against a Pelicans team in 11th place in the Western Conference.

Irving was sensational: 24 points and nearly a dozen plays that made Barclays Center let out a collective “oooh.” LaMarcus Aldridge also had his best game as a Net: 24 points, two threes and a block at the rim on Zion Williamson.

Durant’s perfect night had the perfect ending: a landslide victory two days off before hosting the Lakers on Saturday. The Lakers will be without both their stars as LeBron James and Anthony Davis recover from injuries.

Durant is back from his. He looks like he never left.

“He definitely wasn’t rusty,” Aldridge said. “He just makes the game easier for us.”