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The last time Kevin Durant played in an NBA game that mattered was June 2019. That was pre-pandemic, pre-bubble, pre-Nets. 

Durant’s return to competitive NBA action has arrived, though, with the Nets playing both on the NBA’s opening night and then on Christmas Day. Brooklyn acquired Durant in a free agency sign-and-trade in 2019 with the knowledge that for his first year with the franchise, he wouldn’t play a single minute. But the waiting is over, and all eyes will be on Durant as he comes back from a devastating injury to team with a fellow score-first teammate in Kyrie Irving.

You’d be forgiven if the 2019-20 NBA season, the longest NBA season ever, went by without Durant coming to mind too often. When he occasionally appeared, it was in street clothes on the Nets’ bench. His silky smooth jumper could only play on highlight reels as Durant underwent extensive rehab. Now, after the shortest NBA offseason ever, Durant is ready to return to the argument of best player on the planet. 

MORE: NBA predictions for 2020-21 season, including Finals picks

When did Kevin Durant tear his Achilles tendon?

Durant tore his right Achilles tendon on June 10, 2019 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. 

In the Western Conference semifinals, Durant strained his right calf. It was an injury that kept him out the remainder of that series and all of the Western Conference Finals. Durant’s return to the court came for that Game 5 against Toronto. 

Durant played 12 minutes before all the hype and hope about his return came crashing down. On a crossover attempt, Durant planted his right foot, lost the ball and immediately hopped away in pain. He held his lower right leg as he sat on the court, and the injury was diagnosed as a torn Achilles tendon.

A torn Achilles is regarded as one of the worst injuries a basketball player can get, and it kept Durant out for the entirety of the 2019-20 NBA season. 

How Kevin Durant recovered from torn Achilles in 2019-20 NBA season

The Nets signed Durant knowing he’d just torn his Achilles. GM Sean Marks confirmed in September that Durant would likely miss the whole season, and Durant said that himself on a First Take appearance in October. It was always going to be about recovery first for Durant.

Even when the NBA season was delayed and pushed to a bubble in Orlando over the summer, Durant remained out. That decision was likely helped in part because Irving had shoulder surgery in March that kept him out of action in the bubble, too. The 2020-21 season would be the first time they could get on the court together for Brooklyn.

“It’s just best for me to wait,” Durant told ESPN in June. “I don’t think I’m ready to play that type of intensity right now in the next month. It gives me more time to get ready for next season and the rest of my career. My season is over. I don’t plan on playing at all. We decided last summer when it first happened that I was just going to wait until the following season. I had no plans of playing at all this season.”

Durant rehabbed his injury in Los Angeles, and Brian Windhorst wrote for ESPN that Durant’s cautionary approach to returning was in contrast to how he’d approached injuries in both Oklahoma City and Golden State. That could’ve had something to do with Durant suggesting his torn Achilles’ tendon was a result of coming back too quickly from his calf injury.

Why did Kevin Durant leave Warriors, sign with Nets as free agent?

Durant won NBA titles in each of his first two seasons with the Warriors, winning Finals MVP both times. It’s what he’d gone to Golden State to do — win championships that he couldn’t quite reach in Oklahoma City.

But Durant’s third Warriors season ended with a torn Achilles tendon in the NBA Finals, and Golden State couldn’t win that series against Toronto without Durant. KD told the Wall Street Journal that he felt accepted with the Warriors, but he knew he’d never be one of the initial pieces of that dynasty. 

“As time went on, I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys,” Durant said. “It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could [give] a full acceptance of me there.”

There’d been social media speculation for a while that Durant might end up in New York, with the Knicks as the major rumored destination. During his third season in Golden State, Durant spent plenty of time squashing rumors about his future. But after the Finals, he chose to head elsewhere.

When it looked like Durant could link up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn and not with the Knicks, that became the desired destination (he technically moved via a sign-and-trade). It was made out to be a big three with DeAndre Jordan, too, but this was really about KD and Kyrie.

“I felt like it was time for a change,” Durant said in 2019. “I wanted to play for a new team. Simply put, I just did it. I didn’t really think about what I was leaving behind or what we accomplished. I put that up on the shelf already. When it was time to make a decision on my future, I just thought solely about me.”

What to expect from Kevin Durant in first games with Nets

Durant made his return to game action on Dec. 13, 2020 in the Nets’ preseason opener. He scored 15 points in 24 minutes.

“Man, it felt good,” Durant said. “Obviously the circumstances are different, no fans in the stands and I know the Nets fans were looking forward to this day, but hopefully enjoyed it on TV. It’s the first step for me as a player, getting back on the court, getting back into my routine, and I felt good. I felt like I knocked some rust off early on and I’ve just got to keep building from here.”

Irving has shown excitement about Durant throughout the preseason, including referring to their partnership as “7-11” since Durant wears No. 7 and Irving wears No. 11. 

“This is the first time in my career where I could look down and be like, ‘That [expletive] can make that shot too, and he’d probably do it a lot easier.’ You know what I mean?” Irving said in October.

Unlike in Golden State, where ball movement and unselfishness had been ingrained prior to Durant’s arrival, the on-court partnership with Irving leaves some basketball intrigue. Both Durant and Irving are regarded as ball-dominant and score-first players. They each are solid passers, too, but it’s scoring that’s at the front of their skill sets.

Such a duo raises many of the same questions that LeBron James/Anthony Davis, James Harden/Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard/Paul George have presented in recent years. The Brooklyn coaches will have to decide whether they want the pair to play 36 minutes together each game, or if they should stagger their minutes. There’s always going to be that last-shot question Irving brought up in the offseason. Even more simply, there’s the matter of how to run an offense that best embraces both their skill sets.

Durant’s had enough recovery time and looked spry enough in the preseason to expect a similar player to of old, one with an unstoppable jump shot, sneaky-good handles and great defensive capability, too. The question that was never really answered in Irving’s last stop, in Boston, was how to build a championship contender with him at point guard. Soon, we’ll find out if the answer simply was to add Durant. 

Kevin Durant timeline, from Warriors to Nets

July 7, 2016 – Durant signs with the Warriors in free agency after leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder.

June 12, 2017 – Warriors win NBA Finals over Cavaliers. Durant earns Finals MVP while averaging more than 35 points per game in the series.

June 8, 2018 – Warriors sweep Cleveland for another NBA title. Durant is Finals MVP again with averages of 28.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

June 10, 2019 – Durant tears his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Raptors. Durant had suffered an injury to the his calf in the Western Conference semifinals before returning to action in the championship series’ fifth game. He played 12 minutes before the injury.

July 7, 2019 – Durant is traded to the Nets as part of a sign-and-trade with the Warriors. Brooklyn sends back a protected 2020 first-rounder, D’Angelo Russell, Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham.

Dec. 13, 2020 – Durant takes the court for the first time in 552 days in his preseason debut for Brooklyn.

Dec. 22, 2020 – Durant starts for the Nets on opening night of the 2020-21 NBA season against the Warriors on TNT.

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December 22, 2020
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