Knicks, rest of NBA see Kevin Durant’s return to greatness

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MILWAUKEE — Kevin Durant wore the look of a man who had just enjoyed a pleasant meal with colleagues, or who had just finished a good book he was eager to recommend to friends. Under his “New York Robbery” cap, Durant’s expression was one of mild contentment, certainly not awe, which explains how a human being can score 49 points in 48 minutes of a must-have playoff game without much help.

This was Tuesday night inside a Barclays Center Zoom room, where Durant showed up in a hooded pullover with the words “The Audacity to Dream” set against the letters “USA.” His Brooklyn Nets coach, Steve Nash, had already completed a Zoom presser that found him looking and sounding astonished over what he had just witnessed.

Nash was a Hall-of-Fame point guard who competed in 120 playoff games, and yet acted like a wide-eyed kid who had just sat courtside at his first NBA game.

As Durant prepared for Game 6, a closeout game on the road, basketball fans everywhere wanted to know one thing: What would he do for an encore? It’s hard to believe anyone would be asking that question given where Durant was only two years ago, after his Achilles exploded on national TV. Coaches, scouts and executives knew he would return as a fairly significant force to be dealt with.

But how many thought KD would return as KD? Or as an even more dynamic version of his former, two-time champion self?

The NBA has never seen a player quite like Durant. In a sport forever pumping up listed heights, the 6-foot-10 Nets forward seems a good 2 inches taller even before he extends his 7-5 wingspan. A man that size has never been so ankle-breaking quick with his crossovers, and so lethal on his jump shots from deep.

“It’s ridiculous what he’s able to do,” Nash said.

Especially after suffering such a devastating injury in the 2019 Finals. “Surgery was today and it was a success,” he would write on Instagram next to a photo of himself in a New York hospital bed. “EASY MONEY.”

A perfect nickname for a near-perfect basketball player. The Nets and Knicks wanted him badly, even with the 2019-20 season already written off. Durant’s agent and father both happened to be fans of the Manhattan-based entry in the derby. After Knicks executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry engaged the father, Wayne Pratt, in a pre-free agency video call, according to Matt Sullivan’s new book, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” Pratt told his angry son, “The Knicks is Mecca. … If you want to be a New Yorker, be a Knick!”

Never mind a Knicks backdoor play best described as Tampering 101: Durant wasn’t one to do what people told him to do. In 2016, after the critics advised him not to sign with Golden State, he signed with Golden State. Three summers later, after his dad effectively told him the Nets were counterfeit big-city goods, Durant signed with the Nets.

Over time, with Durant and Kyrie Irving missing so many games, and with Julius Randle developing into a star, the Knicks embraced a “maybe we dodged a bullet” storyline.

How’s that storyline working out for the Knicks now?

Honestly, while sitting in Barclays Center as Durant delivered his staggering Game 5 performance, it was natural to wonder how a Madison Square Garden crowd would’ve reacted to it. Chances are, the response would’ve made the noise inspired by Larry Johnson’s four-point play in ’99 sound like polite golf-tournament applause.

But Durant didn’t want the Knicks, and he sure as hell didn’t need the Knicks. He’d already proved that before going for 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists against the Bucks, before telling Nash and assistant Jacque Vaughn he could go the full 48 minutes. And yet as he chases a third championship, and a place as a generational threat to LeBron James, Durant’s willingness to ignore his injury history and play every minute of a high-stakes playoff game was about as inspiring as James Harden’s willingness to give 46 minutes on one leg.

Thursday night, as tipoff neared, Nash was asked if Brooklyn’s KD is superior to Golden State’s KD, a two-time Finals MVP.

“It’s really hard to say if he’s better now than then,” Nash said. “I would say it’s even remarkable there’s a conversation about that. The amazing part about it, none of us is that surprised. … None of us would say, ‘No way,’ if someone offered that as a stat line for Kevin.”

The least surprised person would be Kevin Durant himself. He genuinely treated Game 5 like just another day at the office, and opened a window on why he was in position to eliminate the Bucks in the first place.

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