This Kevin Durant return looked a lot like the last one.
As it was back on April 7, when Durant came back from missing 23 games with a hamstring strain, he came off the bench after a much shorter absence — three games due to a thigh contusion.
Again, Durant entered the game in the second quarter. Again, the Nets soon took off and sprinted away to a win, this time 128-119 over the Phoenix Suns.
“His skillset and the way he can fit into a basketball team is about as perfect as you can be,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash.
Durant went on to pour in 33 points in 28 minutes, with 24 points in the second half as the Nets went from a 61-59 deficit at the break to a lead as large as 16 points in the fourth quarter. He made 12-of-21 shots with six rebounds and four assists.
“No matter how much you’re used to it, it’s always impressive to see just how efficiently and how easily he scores,” said Blake Griffin. “The thing I love the most about it is we all know, I mean, one of my favorite things about him is how much he just loves to play basketball. You know when he’s sitting out it’s just killing him. Just to see that joy of being able to play basketball again is fun for us and fun for me.”
It was just the third time in Durant’s career he has come off the bench, but also the third time this season. The first was when health and safety protocols kept him out of the start of the Feb. 5 game against Toronto. The last two were in his returns from injury. Nash liked the idea of ensuring he had Durant available down the stretch in deference to his minute limitations, and Durant was on board.
“I just deal with it and adapt to the situation,” said Durant. “Coach asked me today if I wanted to start or come off the bench, and I felt like it would be a bigger challenge for me to focus in and lock in if I came off the bench, so I just wanted to see how that worked. If I shot bad, I probably would have been pissed that I came off the bench, but I was able to knock down some shots. But it was a solid exercise for me to ease back into the swing of things.”
With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the next step is still to come. The Nets are 41-20 and in first place in the Eastern Conference going into Tuesday’s game against Toronto. Getting to the playoffs healthy is the priority. The Nets have three back-to-back sets still to come, and Nash said his preference is not to have Durant play both ends of a back-to-back, but nothing was set.
“I think we monitor it and we'll see if we start him next game or not,” said Nash. “But that's the type of thing that we want to just continue to have the flexibility to decide game-to-game what's the best output for him, and what's the best order of the output. And tonight, we just made sure that — although he'd load up in the second half of minutes — he would have plenty of breaks. He’d come out of the game with a break, you'd have the quarter break and have timeouts. So he came out twice and had a quarter break in between. So we just tried to manage it that way.”
NETS VS. THE WEST
With Sunday’s win over Phoenix, the Nets swept the two-game season series and are now 7-2 against the Western Conference’s top five teams. The Suns — second in the West with a 42-18 record — are one of the league’s surprise teams, having taken a huge leap from the 19-63 record of two seasons ago. Last season’s 34-39 record included an 8-0 record in Florida after the season resumed over the summer and point guard Chris Paul was then added to the maturing young core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.
“Just another game,” said Kevin Durant. “I think they look at us as a measuring stick, too. They’re fresh on the scene as an elite team. This is pretty new to them, so we wanted to gauge and take that physicality that they bring. The toughness, that quickness that they bring. But that’s all it was. Just another day at the office.”
Overall, the Nets are a league-best 20-6 vs. the Western Conference this season, having won 18 of their last 21. The 20 wins are a new single-season franchise record, and Brooklyn’s .769 winning percentage is the best for an East team against the West since the 2012-13 Miami Heat (.833)
“Phoenix is a great team. They obviously have played really, really well this season,” said Blake Griffin. “Right now, especially at this point in the season, it’s about working on us. We haven’t all been on the floor together, and we’re coming down the stretch here where we really need to tighten things up. It’s great to get a win, great to get a win against a Western Conference team, but it’s more about how we do it and the things that we execute on.”
ASSISTS ADDING UP
With 30 assists against Phoenix on Sunday, the Nets have 22 games with at least 30 assists, a game away from matching the franchise record by the 1984-85 team. The Nets are sixth in the NBA with 26.7 assists per game.
KYRIE: COUNT IT FROM THE LINE
After making all nine of his free throw attempts against Phoenix on Sunday, Kyrie Irving has made 75 of his last 76 free throws over his last 17 games dating back to March 15.
Guard Bruce Brown is out for Tuesday’s game against Toronto due to right knee soreness. Brown has played in all but four games this season, including the last 54. Nic Claxton and Alize Johnson remain out due to health and safety protocols.
ABOUT THE RAPTORS
The Raptors are 25-35 and in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They won both of this season’s previous meetings with the Nets — 123-117 on Feb. 5 and 114-103 on April 21. Toronto is 24th in field goal percentage (44.9) but 13th in 3-point percentage (37.1) while ranking third in both 3-pointers attempted (40.0) and made (14.9) per game. The Raptors are 29th in rebounds per game (41.5), third in blocks (5.7) and fifth in steals (8.4). Pascal Siakam leads Toronto with 21.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, plus 4.7 assists. Fred VanVleet averages 19.6 points, 6.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds. Kyle Lowry leads Toronto with 7.2 assists per game and averages 16.7 points.