It might take awhile for the Brooklyn Nets to play with their full roster, but at least they got their star of stars back on Wednesday. And it was almost as if he had never left.
Kevin Durant was perfect in his return to the lineup after missing 23 consecutive games with a hamstring strain. He shot 5-for-5 for the field, finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in the Nets’ 139-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Durant had not played since Feb. 13 because of a strained left hamstring. He came off the bench and played 19 minutes.
“I expected to come out here and play the way I played,” Durant said. “I wasn’t trying to ease into the game. I just wanted to go out there and dive right into the action. The game was fast-paced already, so watching it from the bench I knew exactly how I needed to approach it. But it was pretty cool coming off the bench, I can’t lie.”
The Nets were hoping they could start getting some quality time with their full roster before the start of the postseason next month. Those plans hit a roadblock this week when the team announced that James Harden, who a short-lived return on Monday, will be out at least four more games because of hamstring tightness.
Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving have played just seven games together. And Nets coach Steve Nash also would like to meld newcomers Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge into the mix.
But that’s an issue for another day. For now, Nash just wanted to celebrate Durant’s return.
“I think everyone’s excited to see him,” Nash said. “Everyone knows what a big piece of our team he is, and he’s one of the all-time greats. So I think for our guys to see him out there was definitely exciting and gave them a boost. I think we’ve had a lot of that this year, guys in and out, so it was nice to have him back. It’s been a long absence that no one predicted, even when it first happened, so we’re just thrilled he felt good, played well and he’s back, and seeing that smile on his face was important to me as well.”
Suns rising in the West
The Phoenix Suns have had a remarkable turnaround from just two years ago.
The Suns beat the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz, 117-113, Wednesday in overtime to move to within 1½ games of the conference lead.
That’s a far cry from when the Suns ended the 2018-19 with a 19-63 record, the second-worst season in franchise history. At the end of that season, they fired first-year coach Igor Kokoskov. He was their fourth coach in a six-year span.
The Suns set the stage for this season with their play in the NBA bubble near Orlando last summer. They went 8-0, and although they didn’t advance to the playoffs coach Monty Williams talked about the valuable lessons they took away from that experience.
It also showed the Suns’ brass that with a little tinkering to their young core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that they could compete for a playoff spot. So they acquired 10-time All-Star Chris Paul in an offseason trade with Oklahoma City.
Paul’s offensive numbers are at or above levels seen in his prime (16.3 points, 8.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 37.2% shooting from 3). He remains a sturdy perimeter defender. And in tense moments in a tight game, he’s got the experience you would want.
Against the Jazz, the so-called Point God finished with 29 points on 12-of-24 field goal shooting, four rebounds, and nine assists. Paul also hit two free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining that sealed the win. Booker was also impressive with a 35-point performance.
“It was real intense,” Booker said. “Both teams played very hard. Defended very well. Just a battle throughout. It was really fun to be a part of it. Probably the closest to a playoff-type atmosphere I think we’ve faced this year, but it was fun.”
Russ being Russ
Russell Westbrook had his 20th triple-double of the season on Wednesday, which helped the Wizards beat the Magic, 131-116.
Russell Westbrook with another insane stat-line in a win: 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 16 assists … on 73% FG shooting. He has five triple-doubles in his past six games and is the NBA’s only player averaging double digits in points, rebounds and assists. Westbrook is now 15 triple-doubles behind Oscar Robertson (181) for the all-time record.
“Russ is a dynamic player, but he needs shooters around him and bigs who can roll and finish around the rim,” Brooks said. “His game requires that. With a lot of our games it was 3 seconds in the key (for opposing defenses), and it was going to continue to be that way until we made shots.”
Tristan Thompson back from COVID protocol
Celtics big man Tristan Thompson returned to the lineup on Wednesday for the first time since March 14. He revealed he was out because he contracted COVID-19.
Thompson had been out of quarantine since last week, but he was going through the ramp-up process to get back into game speed. He could be seen going through drills and work pregame, but he wasn’t ready to come back until Wednesday against the Knicks.
He was on a 22-minute restriction and finished with 7 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks during the Celtics’ 101-99 win.
“When I had COVID, I had a bit of all the symptoms,” Thompson said Wednesday. “At least I kept my taste and smell so I can enjoy my food but that (expletive) was no joke. So, definitely going to get the vaccine when I’m eligible to get it.”
Game of the Night
Suns at Clippers: In their most consequential back-to-back of the season, the Suns travel to face the Clippers after having beaten the Jazz in overtime the night before.
The Suns (36-14) are three games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and both are trying to stay ahead of the charging Nuggets, who have seven straight. The Clippers (34-18), who can win the season series and own the tiebreaker over Phoenix with a win at Staples Center.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nets’ Kevin Durant reaches perfection in return after hamstring strain