The odds were against Kevin Durant ever returning to his peak form when he tore his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Durant was 30 years old at the time of the injury, and history was loaded with examples of players who were never the same after suffering a similar tear. An Achilles injury ended Kobe Bryant’s prime, and knocked DeMarcus Cousins to the fringes of the league. “Players who suffer Achilles injuries rarely reach their pre-injury peak, and certainly not for an extended amount of time,” wrote Tim Cato for this website in 2018.
Durant could have re-signed with the Golden State Warriors the following offseason to remain in the idyllic basketball setting that helped him win two championships, but simply returning from a torn Achilles wasn’t the only challenge he needed. Durant and pal Kyrie Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets, taking over a franchise whose last championship happened in the ABA in 1976. Durant was ready to build a new superteam from scratch, but first he had to rebuild his Achilles.
Despite some speculation that Durant could return for the Nets in the bubble after the pandemic pushed back the playoffs, KD chose to sit and get as healthy as possible before coming back. When he made his debut at the start of this season, Durant only played 35 games, battling a hamstring strain and thigh contusion as the Nets added another superstar mid-season with the trade for James Harden.
At this stage of his career and in the specific setting only the Nets could offer him, the regular season was ultimately of little consequence to KD. The playoffs were always going to be the ultimate test of if Kevin Durant was really back. So far, that question has been answered affirmatively in the most emphatic way possible.
Durant entered Game 2 of Brooklyn’s first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks only three days short of the two-year anniversary of the injury. The Bucks were the team with the No. 1 defense in the league during the regular season. They were one of the few teams that had the defensive personnel to have a shot at slowing him down. Harden missed his second straight game with hamstring tightness to level the playing field for Milwaukee.
All Durant did was cook everything the Bucks put in front of him, including two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, by scoring 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting in only three quarters of work. Brooklyn blitzed the Bucks, 125-85, to take a 2-0 lead in the series.
Through seven playoff games, Durant has averaged 32.6 points per game on 56 percent shooting from the field and 64.7 percent shooting from three, and 93.3 percent shooting from the foul line. That right there is peak KD.
After the game, Durant was asked if he was surprised he’s this good coming off the injury. His response: “Is that a real question?”
Yes, this looks like peak Kevin Durant once again, even if it’s only happening in short bursts rather than over the grind of a full season. Durant may not be capable of carrying a team on his back throughout the regular season the way Antetokounmpo has done over the last three seasons, or the way Nikola Jokic did this year in Denver. But under the bright lights of the playoffs, it sure feels like Durant is the most unstoppable player alive.
That’s the ultimate proof that he’s back.
There’s never been anyone in league history quite like Durant. As I wrote after the 2017 NBA Finals for this website, Durant possesses a skill set that has no historical comparison. He’s 7-feet tall with ball handling ability like a guard and one of the sweetest shooting strokes in league history. He has improved as a passer and defender every year throughout his prime, using those unprecedented physical tools to become a complete player. The official account of the Nets said it best: when even Giannis is getting worked like this, what can you do?
With LeBron’s Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers on the ropes in the first round, we wrote that this year’s playoffs were wide open. In a sense, there is new blood in the postseason this year: these will be the first NBA Finals since 2006 to not feature LeBron, the Lakers, or the Warriors.
No franchise still standing in the playoffs has won a title more recently than 1983.
Last year the final eight teams in this year’s playoffs won an NBA title:
— David Aldridge (@davidaldridgedc) June 6, 2021
The Nets have no history in Brooklyn save for a bad trade with the Celtics and some jet-ski stunts. Durant and Irving and then Harden hand-picked the franchise; there’s really nothing the Nets did to ‘earn’ their commitments. The existence of this team is power to the players in the grandest way possible.
The playoffs sure don’t feel wide open when Durant and the Nets are playing like this without Harden. If a team as good as the Bucks can’t help but get smacked by 40 points, good luck to everyone else.