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Kevin Durant is back for the Nets' most crucial stretch yet

Brooklyn's five-game road trip includes a return game for Kevin Durant, as well as matchups against the NBA's hottest division.

It won’t be at Oracle Arena, but Kevin Durant is set to make his return to Warriors ground.

The last time Kevin Durant played a game on the Warriors’ home court was the start of his troubles. On May 8 of 2019, third quarter, Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Rockets, Durant launched a baseline jumper, as he had thousands of times in his stellar career.

The shot fell. And so did Durant, awkwardly. He immediately grabbed his right calf and limped to the locker room.

Consider the state of Durant at that very moment: He had scored 22 points and the Warriors were on their way to a hard-fought win and 3-2 series lead over the stubborn Rockets led by James Harden and Chris Paul, easily the biggest threat to Golden State’s dynasty.

It appeared Durant and the Warriors were primed for a third championship together and a comfy place in history.

Well, fate took a wicked turn that day, for Durant, for the Warriors. An Achilles injury in the 2019 Finals followed by his departure as a free agent that summer brought an end to a brief yet bountiful championship pairing. And as they meet again Saturday in the Bay Area, nearly two years later, not in Oakland but San Francisco, on separate benches, they’re definitely headed in separate destinations this season at least.

“I had some great years in Golden State, and I’m looking forward to being back in the Bay Area,” said Durant, adding that he wishes fans were there.

The Warriors without Durant are what you might expect, especially considering Klay Thompson is on the mend from a second major injury. It’s been a quirky 2020-21 journey so far. Stephen Curry has been reasserting himself back into the Kia MVP conversation by flirting with the NBA scoring lead, but inconsistent play from young players has the Warriors mired in mediocrity.

Far more interesting is the current state of Durant and the company he’s now keeping. Durant is on pace to make a remarkable recovery from Achilles surgery. He’s once again a dangerous offensive threat and late-game hero who’s also in the MVP discussion and currently the leading vote-getter in the East for the All-Star Game. That in itself is one of the best stories of the NBA as the 2020-21 season lurches toward the midway point.

Then there’s another story also dripping with drama: His team, the Nets, is built to travel deep into the postseason, yet face persistent issues as they travel for a West Coast trip.

Durant and his future Hall of Fame teammates, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, can exhaust any team trying to match their offensive lava flow. But can Brooklyn stop anyone — not necessarily now, but in the playoffs, when it truly matters? Furthermore, can the trio develop a smooth working relationship to fully unleash their potential as playmakers and shot-makers?

This road trip is replete with potholes. After playing Curry and the Warriors, the Nets make stops in Sacramento for the red-hot Kings, then the rising Suns, then see both L.A. teams. If the Nets emerge from this without a blemish, which is possible, that would be a powerful if not scary flex for the rest of the league to see.

James Harden and Kyrie Irving have helped carry the scoring load in Brooklyn.

Of course, the Nets could also stumble — consider, for example, that they were 7-6 before Harden arrived and are just 8-6 since. That speaks of a team still searching for a system that works and roles that need to either be defined or refined.

Obviously, other factors have contributed; Durant missing games because of health protocols and Irving sitting out for personal issues. That’s why it’s crucial for the Nets to, at some point, play a long stretch of games where everyone’s in the lineup and on the floor and developing the flow they’ll need once the postseason arrives.

Coach Steve Nash said the Nets need to “decide what type of team they want to be” and appealed to the desire of the players, saying: “Having played the game, a certain amount of that comes down to team-building within that locker room, and deciding if they want to come together and be a force, or if that’s not as important. Right now they’ve been tested here, whether they want to become that team that’s tough and connected and competitive every single night. And that’s got to come from within that room.”

Durant is placing no great sense of urgency on the Nets, realizing that there’s plenty of time ahead, and added: “We got a lot of potential. Each and every game we play good in spurts. We have to put together a full game … it’s about execution. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

Of course, defense is the No. 1 bugaboo impacting that trend. Interestingly, the Nets’ worst defensive games occur against the lowliest of opponents, meaning the Nets aren’t generating or applying the same level of urgency against the bottom class.

Those aren’t the type of opponents they’ll be facing during their longest road trip of the season’s first half. They’re embarking on a slate against the Pacific, which has just one team below .500 (Kings’ loss Friday night dropped them to 12-13). Making an attempt to slow down Stephen Curry, De’Aaron Fox, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in a span of 12 days will be their biggest test yet.

Meanwhile, because they’re bringing three of the most lethal offensive forces in the game — all still in their prime — the Nets have the one strength to camouflage most if not all of their soft spots. On any given night, the pecking order between Harden, Durant and Irving can shuffle, making them the most flexible and dangerous offensive trio since … Durant was with the Warriors.

Curry reminisces on 'amazing run' with Durant

Stephen Curry says Kevin Durant helped provide 'some of the best basketball the world has ever seen' when he played in Golden State.

In due time, Durant will almost certainly get his jersey retired by the Warriors, a steep honor for someone who played only three seasons with Golden State. In the meantime, the Warriors will show a video tribute of Durant in Saturday’s game, although when that happens, there will be an echo instead of applause in the Chase Center, which will be devoid of fans.

“I wish our fans could be in the building for that game so we can give Kevin a proper welcome and a proper celebration for his three years,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I know we’re all looking forward to seeing him.”

Not only did Durant help the Warriors reach the Finals three straight years, he meshed well with Curry, dropped a massive and clutch 3-pointer to secure one of the two championships, and helped make Warriors basketball the best show in the NBA if not all professional team sports.

In hindsight, as you examine the three seasons Durant and the Warriors had together, he was just passing through the Bay Area, a superstar who ultimately wanted something— perhaps a bigger challenge — that he couldn’t find with the Warriors. Maybe he discovers that, and more, with Brooklyn.

At least on Saturday, he’ll come full circle, even if he’ll never come to grips with his last fateful game on the Warriors’ home court and the injury that prevented him and them from finishing the job.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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