It was here during All-Star Weekend 2019 that Kevin Durant solidified his decision to partner with Kyrie Irving when both became free agents the following summer. Four years later, a new partnership was unveiled in the same arena, this one with hope for a better outcome.
Playing for the first time as a member of the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, Durant showed early signs of the potentially devastating one-two punch he can form with Devin Booker in a 105-91 win to snap the Charlotte Hornets’ five-game win streak.
Durant scored 23 points in 27 minutes, his jumper looking rust-free after being out since Jan. 8 while recovering from a right MCL sprain he suffered when he was still with the Brooklyn Nets.
“I feel like I fit in pretty well. Everybody out there was trying to make me as comfortable as possible,” Durant said. “I just got to keep grinding, man, and this jersey on me will look normal as games go on.”
It was Durant’s playmaking combination with Booker that left the biggest impression.
When they were on the floor together certainly, as Booker had a terrific all-around game with 37 points, six rebounds and seven assists to create the sort of wing-scoring duo that the Durant acquisition was all about.
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“This is one of those moments that doesn’t really feel real,” Booker said. “I mean, it’s just every time he shoots the ball, it’s just so effortless. You can see defenders trying their hardest to contest or fight over a screen, and he just looks unbothered, unfazed.”
But it was when Booker and Durant were separated where the Suns’ game plan with them came into focus.
In both halves, Durant played stretches with four bench players, and both times the score went from close to double-digit Phoenix leads as he drilled a series of his trademark midrange jumpers. He ended the match having shot 10-of-15.
Those stretches, essentially, made it a stress-free victory as the Suns never trailed and Durant ended up with a plus-13 plus/minus, second best on the team.
When Durant, who played four six-minute shifts and then the final three minutes as part of a minutes restriction, was sitting, it was Booker who was going to work — making 15 of 26 shots as he worked off Chris Paul, who had 11 assists, per usual.
Once the minutes restriction lifts and Durant’s playing time alongside Booker’s increases — or so coach Monty Williams’ plan seems to be — the Suns’ full potential can be unlocked.
“It’s just pretty cool to be able to give the guy the ball and he could get to his spot and get a really good shot,” Williams said. “I thought the team fed off of him just being himself tonight.”
Wednesday night’s match wasn’t blemish-free, though. Concerns about the top-heavy potential of the Suns’ scoring already showed up as only one other player, Deandre Ayton, was in double figures with 16 points.
Paul, who is having a bad shooting season, had another poor night, going 1-of-8. Josh Okogie, who kept his starting spot after averaging 18.5 points in a boosted role following the Durant trade, scored four.
The Suns also hinted that getting to the foul line might be an issue at times with three players who specialize in midrange shots. The Hornets, missing star LaMelo Ball after he suffered a broken ankle earlier this week, drew 13 more free throws.
Kelly Oubre Jr. led Charlotte with 26 points but was just 9-of-24 shooting as the Suns held the Hornets to 36.4% from the field.
Nonetheless, the Durant rollout was a success after a calculated plan that permitted for bonus practice and conditioning time and a game against one of the league’s weaker teams.
Even with that, though, Durant admitted he was nervous.
“New environment, new situation, new teammates, I mean I always feel I got to prove myself to my teammates and my coaches every single day no matter what I’ve done in the league,” Durant said. “So I feel like there’s pressure to be who I am every day.”
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