The Brooklyn Nets star pulled up for one his graceful 3-pointers. All net. He dribbled by two defenders, stopped hard and swished a mid-range jumper for an and-one. He drove baseline for a two-handed dunk. Forty-two points in one game, 38 in another, 37, 36, 34 and 33 points in other games.
Moves like Kevin Durant. Shoots like Kevin Durant. Scores like Kevin Durant.
Yeah, that’s the All-Star version of Kevin Durant alright. But that was earlier this season, before a left hamstring injury sidelined him for two months, interrupting his return from a ruptured right Achilles tendon sustained in the 2019 NBA Finals.
How does Durant look now? In three games since coming back from the hamstring injury, Durant has scored 17, 22 and 31 points and shot 64.9% from the field and 58.3% on 3-pointers.
“I felt good out there,” Durant said after scoring 31 points on 11-for-15 shooting against Minnesota on Tuesday. “I felt like my wind and legs were getting underneath me in each and every minute I’m playing.”
Watching Durant in 22 games this season, it’s clear he can perform at an All-Star level and was, before the hamstring injury, in the MVP conversation.
“It’s pretty remarkable where he’s come from, and for him to be this efficient on top of all that is impressive,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Nothing’s set in stone, but you have to take your hat off and say the guy loves the game, he’s willing to sacrifice because he has such a deep passion for playing and that’s put him in this position where he’s made this incredible recovery.”
He is vital to the Nets’ championship goal, along with Kyrie Irving and James Harden. However, injuries, COVID-19 health and safety protocols and personal reasons have forced those three to play just seven games together this season. By the time the playoffs begin, those three will have played less than 25 games together.
“We want to get everyone healthy and acclimated to what we’re doing out there, and that’s just as important as circling the calendar for Philly,” Durant said before Wednesday’s game against the Sixers. “They’re a great team, well-coached and I’m sure a team we’ll have to run into soon. But for us at this point, we just want to continue to fine tune what we do and get better at the things make us who we are, and we’ll see what happens down the line.”
The Nets are cautious with Durant and will remain so for the final five weeks of the season. Durant did not play Wednesday against Philadelphia, the second game of back-to-back in which Durant played the previous game.
“We’ve got to protect him and make sure that – although he’s dying to play – we protect him so that he can fully overcome this injury and feel strong going forward,” Nash said.
Nash said the plan right now is to have 48 hours between high-intensity physical outputs.
The Nets play just about every other day the remainder of the season with four sets of back-to-backs. It’s not ideal. Durant wants to play, and the Nets need him to play. It is a delicate dance for the Nets and Durant.
Both had hoped for more than 22 games played by this point. But what they need more is a healthy Durant for the playoffs.
The Nets, who are 37-18 and in a second play, a game behind Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference, aren’t the only team managing injuries to stars. The Los Angeles Lakers are without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but at least they have spent a season together and won a championship.
It will be a pressure-filled, high-wire act in the playoffs for Brooklyn. As the standings are now, a 2-7 matchup would put the Nets against defending Eastern Conference champs Miami in the first round. Not your normal 2-7 playoff matchup.
That Durant has returned from the Achilles injury able to perform at a high level was a relief. Durant, 32, hobbled off the court in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, and immediately the question became: Will he – and can he – return to an All-NBA caliber performer?
NBA players who have had the injury returned with varying degrees of success. Kobe Bryant had his injury at 34 years old in 2013, nearing the end of his career, and it robbed him of a better conclusion. Mario Chalmers missed a full season and played just one more NBA season after an Achilles injury in 2016, and DeMarcus Cousins has not been the same player since tearing his Achilles tendon in 2018.
NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is the beacon for Achilles injuries. He returned from the injury and made the All-Star team two more times and All-NBA team once more, averaging 29 points the season after his injury.
There was optimism from inside and outside Durant’s camp that he could be more like Wilkins. He had time, age, modern medicine and playing style on his side.
The Achilles is the strongest tendon in the body. “The tendon is formed from two muscles in the calf that are the main propulsive muscles for running and jumping,” foot and ankle surgeon Dr. Steven Weinfeld said. “If the strength in those muscles aren’t adequately restored, the athlete can’t generate the same propulsive force they did.”
An NBA player relies on that force. Rebuilding the muscle is painstaking and slow, requiring patience and commitment. It takes four weeks of inactivity for the muscles to atrophy and a year to rebuild them.
“The grueling part is very methodical and there’s a lot of progressions you’re going through for a player because you have to make sure they’re able to handle that load,” Dr. Rajpal Brar, a physiotherapist, said. “With an Achilles tear early on, you’re not putting the player through the full range of motion. We know there’s significant muscle deficits. You have to rebuild that muscle before you can get into the higher explosive aspects and from there, you’re moving into different directions which puts a much different load on the tendon and the muscle.”
It didn’t take long for Durant to reveal his post-injury condition this season.
He averages 28.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 53.5% from the field and 44.8% on 3-pointers. It’s the most points he has averaged since 2013-14, and it’s the highest 3-point percentage of his career.
He gets to the foul line almost 7.3 times per game, the Nets score 121 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor. He is a fraction of a point behind Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo as the best fourth-quarter scorer at 7.5 points per game.
Just as important as his offense, Durant has been a key factor in Brooklyn’s best defensive units. The Nets are 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions (112.8), but with Durant on the floor, they allow 109.5 points per 100 possessions, which moves the Nets closer to the middle of the rankings.
While Durant may not admit this, there is part of him that is playing with a sharper edge, out to prove not only can he come back from a major injury but thrive as an All-NBA performer.
Durant had the benefit of time as COVID-19 reshaped the schedule for two seasons. He missed all of last season and didn’t have to return for an NBA game until Dec. 22 – 18 months between meaningful games. When the Nets signed him in the summer of 2019, they knew he would miss all of last season.
His low point wasn’t even during rehab. It came when he was back on the court, up and down, five-on-five, and then the pandemic hit, slowing his progress.
“As I was starting to feel good right before the coronavirus hit, I was playing a lot,” Durant said. “I was playing pick-up every day and for that to stop for probably a month and half, two months as I was building that momentum, that was probably the most frustrating part – not getting in the gym, not having 10 guys to run and bump against.
“That streak that I was on of playing every day, feeling more and more like a player again, that just stopped, like everything else in the world. I was on such a good rhythm I wish that I had kept going. That was probably the lowest point.”
When Nash checked in on Durant, he could see the progress.