CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The irony wasn’t lost on Kevin Durant as he walked down a back hallway at the Spectrum Center, exiting the building following a successful debut as the newest member of the Phoenix Suns.
Back when he was in his final season in Golden State and soon-to-be-teammate Kyrie Irving was still in Boston, the two were in that very back hallway on All-Star Sunday and internet detectives determined Irving gave Durant his elevator pitch for the two to team up in Brooklyn following that season.
Durant chuckled but said that wasn’t the case, that the two friends were joking about something else. Even if it was, neither could’ve envisioned everything that transpired since, their grand plan going up in smoke after appearing so promising on its face.
Durant began yet another hopeful journey, filled with championship expectations and the apparent spotlight to validate, as if he isn’t a decorated champion and Finals MVP two times over.
Wednesday night against the depleted Hornets, it looked easy for Durant.
It always looks easy.
He fits in here. He fits in everywhere.
That’s his gift, perhaps his defining one of all. And it’s likely the one that separates him from any other superstar in NBA history.
Durant played 27 minutes — a few more than he was scripted to — and scored 23 points with six rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in the Suns’ 105-91 win over the Hornets. The hooper in Durant was just glad to break a real sweat, to get back to competition for the first time since an MCL injury in early January sidelined him for several weeks.
Things are slowing down, finally.
“Once I moved and settled down in Phoenix, things settled down,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “But it wasn’t gonna settle down until I played. I need a week or so … mentally, I was on one team and now so quickly I’m on another team. I’ve never been through that before. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around all this.”
It’s a lot if one hasn’t kept count. There was the Durant trade request from Brooklyn over the summer, followed by he and the Nets issuing a joint statement vowing to move forward this season when no trade appeared suitable.
Then after a slow Nets start, coach Steve Nash was fired. Durant got hurt in January after playing up to his usual high standard, then Irving — after a tumultuous start to the season all on his own — was told by the Nets they didn’t want to discuss a contract extension until after the season, according to sources.
Then quietly, Durant went back to Nets management and asked out, again. This time, it obliged and he landed in Phoenix, a place on his trade list the first time — a team that wouldn’t be depleted in trading for him, still employing the likes of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and veteran point guard Chris Paul.
“I’m processing it right now. It’s a business, it’s how I’m looking at it,” Durant said. “I’m not the first one to get traded or ask for a trade. I don’t look at myself or my status in the league that I can’t go through what other players in the league go through.”
He said all the right things on media day in September and did all the wondrous Durant things on the floor during his remaining time in Brooklyn, but the reasoning behind the initial trade request never changed in the interim.
“What do you think it was?” queried Durant, as he is wont to do with the media during sessions. “I was looking at the year we was in the last year and then this year, what are we doing [for the future]? I’m here. I signed the contract [extension], but nobody else around me signed. It was too much confusion. I’m glad I can move forward.”
“I was thinking about who’s in the building, then when s*** started happening. We’re not playing well. KI requested a trade. It felt like a lot of s*** wasn’t happening for us. But I was locked in. I felt like my play showed people that I was really committed to the organization.
“I looked up, like what am I gonna do? I don't know who's gonna be my teammates, so I was a little nervous with that happening. And we were able to work something out.”
Durant faced criticism for Irving being in and out of controversy, seeing as how the Nets took Irving along as a condition of getting Durant — placing him in a position of leadership. In Phoenix, the Suns seem aware of that talk and don’t want Durant falling into a similar spot.
“I think too many players in the NBA get too much pressure to lead,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, who was an assistant in Oklahoma City in 2015-16, Durant’s last year there. “I just don’t think it’s necessary. It’s my job to lead. Players do it in spots. But that’s the one thing I told him. I said, I’m not looking for you to lead. We just want you to be yourself and I think that’s where he’s the most free. To be himself.
“We have Chris. Book leads in his own way. Chris [has] been a great leader his whole life. We just want [Durant] to be himself. He can show nuances of leadership with the way he works. It’s been interesting to hear the comments, different players and different people in the gym and they see him go through his workout. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I think that’s had a huge impact.”
Durant rarely looks bothered by the outside world through the course of a game. After a minicamp of sorts in between him being traded before All-Star weekend and the days between Sunday’s game and Wednesday, Durant was able to get some hard practices in with his new teammates before finally stepping on the floor.
He was captivated by Booker’s 37-point, seven-assist, six-rebound night Wednesday, not dissimilar to the way he marveled at Irving’s on-floor exploits. The Suns aren’t particularly deep, and after so many stellar seasons at the top of the point guard mountain, Paul is beginning to slow a bit.
The expectations are there, not just for the Suns to get through the West even with their flaws, but for Durant to lead them. This isn’t an overwhelming super-team folks believed he had in Golden State, nor is it an unsettled outfit in Brooklyn that couldn’t stop from tripping over its own feet.
It’s not the perfect setup, not in the least. But Durant can do work in the desert and shut up his vocal critics, like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. They’re NBA legends, TNT talking heads and more importantly, gatekeepers of the old school.
Durant chose his words carefully on his way to the team bus.
“I don’t know how to say it, these guys are … but …”
Putting an unfair standard on you?
“Most definitely. Because at this point, they’re saying, go play with Scoot Henderson and win a championship and then we’ll give you credit,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t need no credit from y’all, no credit from [Barkley], no credit from Shaq. Y’all don’t ever have to watch me play ever again, don’t talk about me if you don’t [rock] with me. I’m not gonna stop doing what I do. Everybody has their opinions, man. It’s not gonna stop me and how I approach the game.
“As far as leading a team, I don’t need to coach no team. Whatever happens, we do it together. [Monty’s] the leader, he’s the coach. The GM puts the team together. I’m supposed to go out and hoop. That’s my job.”
Durant was boarding the bus after greeting some fans in the loading dock, smiling and posing for photos, chuckling when one said, “You looked good out there,” as if Durant expected to perform like anything less than himself.
He was asked one final question, if he regretted the extension that seemingly handcuffed him into this needless mess as opposed to going into free agency again, free to pick a situation of his own choosing.
“I don’t regret nothing. Nothing I do in my life I regret,” Durant said. “[Not] signing an extension worth that much money?”
He laughed again — blissfully dismissive but ever the realist.