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He’s Kevin Durant. We know who he is ... and we’re real happy about it

Brooklyn Nets v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary BassingNBAE via Getty Images

It’s begun to dawn on people, pundits and fans alike, that Kevin Wayne Durant is inarguably the best player in the world, even better now than he was before he tore his Achilles in Toronto during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. And yes, maybe better than he’s ever been!

The numbers all say it. He is off to the best start of his career and the best start of any player in franchise history. His statistics are frightening if you’re an opponent’s coach, the stuff of Nirvana if you’re a Nets fan.

Zach Lowe on Friday...

Durant leads the league in scoring: 29.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, space-sucking defense. Brace yourself for the shooting numbers: 58.5% overall, 40.4% on 3s, an ungodly 64.5% on 2s — including an absolutely hilarious 61% on mid-rangers. Durant is almost a divinity — floating above mortals.

As he added in a tweet...

People are noticing all this for a number of reasons. The season is 11 games old, a nice slice to measure, and Durant is barreling through the league, concocting a near perfect season. He was 11-of-12 the other night in Orlando ... two nights after a 38-point effort in Chicago. There’s been no load management. He’s into it.

Another aspect of this collective epiphany was his return to Toronto earlier this week, the first time he had stepped on that court since he was carted off it on June 10, 2019. Neither Durant nor the Nets made a big deal of the return. Steve Nash said he wasn’t aware of the milestone until asked about it post-game. It is, however, a convenient measuring stick — “a return to the scene of the catastrophe,” as Nash put it.

Back then, people, fans and pundits alike, thought that Durant done. Maybe he’d come back as a reduced KD, a “late stage Dirk.” Not the real KD. Now, we know that conventional wisdom was wrong.

Durant himself understands where he is, not just who he is. (He is Kevin Durant, ICYMI.) In talking with Charles Barkley the other night on “The ETCs” podcast, he described the wonder he felt when named to the NBA’s 75th anniversary. You might think an honor like that would be shrugged off. Of course, he’s among the 75 best players ever! Instead, he was thrilled.

“You see everybody who played the game and how many people aspire to be basketball players and to be amongst that 75 greatest is a surreal feeling,” he told Barkley. “You put in so much work and to be recognized for something like that is just sweet. Your peers voted for you, people that have been around the game for 75 years voted for you, it makes you feel like you’re doing something right …

“I called up my Moms, I called up my AAU coach from when I was 8 or 9 years old, you know people that were around for the journey. You hit them up because they know how special the game is too. I love that the NBA did that.”

Durant admits that his surgery and rehab, interspersed with his decision to sign in Brooklyn, has made him a different player ... and a different person. Over and over, Durant has shown he can be the leader of a team that truth be told is in a crisis, missing one superstar, hoping another one gets untracked soon.

In talking to Barkley on Tuesday, Durant showed one part of his newly mellow (off-court) style, explaining how his engagement with fans on social media has changed. Not so confrontational.

“I enjoy engaging with the fans. I used to take it personally,” he said. “There was a point where I used to think the people were trying to personally attack me through my social media,” said KD, who has been noticeably more mellow on a number of issues. “Then I realized these people don’t know me at all. A lot of people were just excited to have an interaction, just have a way to get some attention some way.”

That new Durant can also be seen nightly in post-game interviews with the media, a mutually respectful relationship. Right after the Nets made their decision on Irving, he told the media...

“I mean, it may not be an everyday thing like it is now, but I’m sure it’s going to come up here and there. But we’re pros, we understand. We know that [we’ve] got a job to do, so it’s on us to focus in on our job and answer the questions.

“I mean, I’m not gonna get irritated at what y’all ask. It’s just a part of the job. I anticipate it happening throughout the season and we knew what we were getting ourselves into with something like this were to happen, as far as media wise. So, get prepared now and just be locked in on your job and everything else will take care of itself.”

If you need to ask questions about Kyrie Irving, go ahead. I understand, he basically told writers. At the same time, he’s talked often about the need for Irving to return, to find a solution to the issue. But if not, things need to move on.

“Everybody’s been locked-in on that since Day 1 of the season,” he told Barkley when asked about Irving’s absence. “Just, like, let’s focus on who’s in the locker room and once that situation figured out, we’ll adjust back to that. But for now, everybody’s just trying to figure out their roles on this team. And at this point, it’s been exciting trying to figure that out.”

The only concern about Durant right now is whether the Nets are relying too much on the one fully healthy and available member of their “Big Three.”

“That’s the luxury of having All-Star players that they can do that. Kevin’s obviously elite at scoring and isolating, so there are times when we lean on him but it’s important for our team that we don’t overburden someone like that [Durant],” Nash said. You want to give him as many great opportunities to score out of the flow and out of teamwork, rather than having to face a loaded defense all night.

“So while that is a luxury that he can make plays against anyone, we definitely don’t want to rely on that. That’s the antithesis to our vision. But that is a luxury when he can just rise up and score over people.”

On the other hand, KD is averaging more minutes per game in the Nets opening stretch than in any of his career, 34.0. Again, no games off either.

How did all this happen? It began with Durant himself. His drive, his love of the game, his demand for respect certainly pushed him to return, prove the doubters and haters wrong. It helped that he had maybe the best foot and ankle surgeon anywhere in Dr. Martin O’Malley, to diagnose and repair the tear. He’s been the Nets orthopedist for years. Andy Barr, KD’s physiotherapist, was there from the beginning of his rehab and is now also on the Nets staff. Skill, hard work, patience all seemed to pay off.

“I’m proud of everyone who sacrificed their time to help me get through this tough period,” Durant said after the Raptors game. “I was a burden on a lot of people mentally; you never knew how I was going to approach the day, but so many people took the time to help me through this, and they made sure I was doing the right work, so I appreciate all of them.”

Nets fans, particularly those who’ve been around a while, seem to be continually pinching themselves at their good fortune. As one put it last week, writing clearly in awe...

Yup. We are all on Kevin Durant’s island now and happy to be here.