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5 takeaways from Kevin Durant's triumphant debut with Suns

Kevin Durant shows no signs of rust in his 1st game with Phoenix, meshing quickly with his new teammates.

Efficient as usual, Kevin Durant scores 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting in his debut with the Suns.

CHARLOTTE — The Queen City witnessed the return of one of the NBA’s top superstars Wednesday, as Kevin Durant scored an efficient 23 points to aid Phoenix’s 105-91 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in his Suns debut.

Playing in his first NBA game in 52 days, Durant showed few signs of rust and fatigue, while flashing a glimpse of the danger opponents can expect this postseason if the Suns can fully integrate the 13-time All-Star with the bevy of solid weaponry already on the roster.

“I missed playing,” Durant said with a white towel draped over his head. “I missed being out on the floor, going over strategy, just talking with the guys, the camaraderie, all that stuff. I feel like I fit in pretty well. I’ve just got to keep grinding, man, and this jersey on me will look normal as games go on. I’m glad I got to get back out there on the floor today.”

His teammates, meanwhile, expressed gratitude Durant chose to do it with them after joining the Suns in a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline that sent Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, four first-round Draft picks and a pick swap to Brooklyn for the two-time Finals MVP and T.J. Warren.

Durant hadn’t played since suffering a right MCL sprain on Jan. 8 at Miami that resulted in 20 missed games.

So forgive the Suns for pinching themselves in the immediate aftermath of their new teammate hitting 10 of 15 from the floor, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, in addition to grabbing six boards and two blocks in nearly 27 minutes of action.

Durant competed on a minutes restriction that will gradually be lifted over the next couple of weeks, according to Phoenix head coach Monty Williams.

“This is one of those moments that doesn’t really feel real,” Suns guard Devin Booker said, after scoring a game-high 37 points. “It’s fun, I’ll tell you that. You could feel the energy. You could feel the confidence throughout the team. That’s what the great ones do. He might not be the loudest person in the locker room, but his work speaks for itself. It’s definitely contagious from top to bottom.”

Here are five takeaways from a highly anticipated night unfolding inside the Spectrum Center:

1: Suns have Devastating potential

Durant in a starting lineup that features Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton already garners plenty of attention. But Phoenix envisions keeping at least Booker or Durant on the floor with some of the bench lineups.

We saw the Suns tinker with it on Wednesday, as Durant played chunks of minutes with several reserves. Surprisingly, in each instance, the visitors’ lead only increased with Durant in action.

“I’ve just got to still be me no matter who is on the floor,” Durant said. “Things were working for us when I was out there with those guys.”

Booker watched from the bench with Paul in disbelief.

Meanwhile, whenever Durant sat on the bench, Book cooked.

“There’s no feeling like that,” Booker said. “I think when it comes down to it, one of us will be on the court at all times, which is helpful. It’s a good feeling.”

2: With Durant in uniform, Phoenix is feeling the heat

Williams scanned a room full of reporters to illustrate the point he would make when asked about the pressure associated with landing Durant, for a team already fostering lofty expectations.

Having led the Suns to a Finals appearance in just his second season, followed by last year’s berth in the West semifinals, Williams joked at first before coming clean about the pressure building as Phoenix sits at fourth in the conference with 19 games remaining. There’s success from the recent past, bundled with a new governor in Mat Isbia before you even get to the addition of a generational superstar in Durant.

Kevin Durant showed no lingering effects from a sprained right knee that kept him out of action for more than 7 weeks.

“You feel it,” Williams said of the mounting pressure. “You feel it at the hotel when there’s people lined up outside. You feel it in the gym. I think since I’ve been in Phoenix, I’ve felt it just build because of the improvements that the guys have made on the floor. I’ve tried to embrace it, but one day at a time. But yeah, I feel it.

“I learned a long time ago that pressure and expectations are a privilege. You have to embrace those things. To answer your question, yeah. Just look at the room. I feel like I’m at the Geneva Convention or something.”

But does Williams consider anything less than a title in 2023 a disappointment for the Suns?

“There’s always a disappointment. There’s six or seven teams that feel that way,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say something like that. We don’t even talk about it because we’re not there. No one has said that in our gym one time because our guys understand we’re not even close to that.”

3: There could be changes ahead

Phoenix plays a certain style under Williams, but the coach maintains he’s keeping an open mind on figuring out how the Suns “can play” he said, “as opposed to how we [normally] play, and [not] forcing that onto not just Kevin, but [other new additions] Terrence [Ross], [Darius Bazley], and T.J. [Warren].”

Williams said he constantly picks Durant’s brain at practices about “situations” that transpire on the floor. While also inquiring about past experiences, in a search to uncover certain wrinkles that Phoenix might be looking to integrate into its current system.

“Communication is so important in any setting, but especially when you bring someone like Kevin in. You want to try to pick his brain as much as possible. He’s played in every big game possible,” Williams said. “So, why would I not pick his brain and try to figure out a couple of things that I may not be the best at? I’ve seen him on different teams play a little bit of a different style than we do. You want to know why, and why were you so comfortable with that? Maybe it’s something that we can integrate into what we do.”

Booker agreed, but realizes time is fleeting.

“We’re over halfway through the season, [19] games left, and obviously everybody knows our goal and where we’re trying to go,” Booker said. “So, we have enough talent to do it. I think it’s gonna come down to the details that we have to learn. That’s what we’re doing, just trying to get everybody accustomed to the type of basketball that we’ve been playing, the system that we’ve been in. At the end of the day, the talent will take over.”

4: Durant wants to get ‘Lost in the game’

That’s where Durant “is looking forward” to finding himself very soon in this process. As good as he felt (and looked) against the Hornets, the two-time NBA champion is still playing on a minutes restriction that will be adjusted based on how his right knee feels. He’s also adopted a more rehabilitation-focused routine that will change as the healing continues. Throw in new teammates and different systems to learn on both sides of the ball, and you quickly understand why Durant simply wants to feel the joy again of playing the game he loves.

Remember, Durant suffered a left knee injury similar to this latest setback around mid-January of last season, and that kept him out of action until March 3. So, having experienced the injury before, Durant knows what’s required for a full recovery.

“I was having fun out there before I got injured,” Durant said. “I know it’s going to take some time to get used to everything early on. But as far as just having fun and getting lost in the game, I’m looking forward to that again.”

Durant continues to put in the work to ensure that happens. More than an hour ahead of Wednesday’s tipoff, the forward grinded through a rigorous pre-game workout in a dark hallway that consisted of a variety of stretches and stabilizing movements. Near the end of the session, Durant worked through several repetitions of stepping onto a tall box, where he’d simulate the two steps a player would take toward the basket just before lifting off for a layup.

“I’m just going through my routine,” he said. “I was injured. So, I’m there a little earlier than guys. I’m staying a little later. Stuff that I would not do if I wasn’t injured, I’m doing now. So, that’s probably what you see. I’ve had plenty of injuries before. I figure what’s best for me throughout rehab and as I’m ramping back up to get back into the game, I kind of understand what I need to do to be the best version of me. Then, just go out there with a free and clear mind, just play, not worry my knee, and try not to think about it. The game just told me what to do out there tonight.”

5: Suns are unlikely to rush things

The Suns continue their current four-game road trip on Friday at Chicago, before Dallas hosts a reunion between Durant and former Nets teammate Kyrie Irving on Sunday at American Airlines Center.

Williams isn’t sure how he’ll handle Durant’s workload moving forward. But it’s worth to consider how the coach dealt with Booker’s return from a groin injury that sidelined him for 21 games. The shooting guard returned on Feb. 7 from that injury, but the staff held him out of the Suns’ next game (Feb. 9 at Atlanta), citing return from injury management as the reason.

Durant could be looking at a similar scenario for Friday’s game against the Bulls.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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