Kevin Durant has become the prime victim of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocol confusion over the past several weeks. The former MVP, who has been brilliant in his first season with the Brooklyn Nets, has been sidelined twice with protocol issues, despite testing negative every time.
Durant had COVID-19 11 months ago, but he has been negative since his recovery. He was pulled from the starting lineup in a Feb. 5 home game against the Raptors and then told he could play. He was removed again in the third quarter because a team official he came into contact with tested positive.
It led to mass confusion as to why Durant was even allowed to play if he was a risk. And, to add to the confusion, the NBA decided the remaining Nets and Raptors players were safe and they were all allowed to play the next night.
Only Durant missed time.
“It was just an unfortunate situation,” Durant said on the eve of his scheduled return Saturday when he was to face the Warriors. “I was looking forward to that [Raptors] game that night and being told right before tipoff that I had to wait a second for a test. You know, it just threw off my rhythm a bit because I wanted to go out there and play, but I’m back out there now.”
Injury recovery and COVID-19 protocols have cost Durant nine of the team’s first 27 games. But he’s been stellar when on the floor, averaging 29.5 points on 52.9 percent shooting and hitting 44.9 percent of his shots from the 3-point line. He’s also averaging 7.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.4 blocks. Those are MVP numbers.
There has been shock among NBA observers that Durant has come back to vintage form after such a serious injury. He seemingly hasn’t lost a step and those hours away from the game, working to perfect his shot, have made him an even more efficient scorer.
“I was starting to feel good right before the coronavirus hit as I was starting to feel good, and I was playing a lot, I was playing pickup every day,” he said. “For that to stop for probably a month and a half, two months as I was building up momentum, I think that was probably the most frustrating part, not getting in the gym, not having 10 guys to run and bump against you know, so that momentum, that streak I was on of playing every day and feeling more and more like a player again, it just stopped just like everything else in the world. But for me personally, I had such a good rhythm I wish I had kept going, but that’s probably the lowest point.
“Outside of that, had so much support every day. Worked hard as I could every rep, so I was cool with the results. I knew if I did that every day I’d be good in shape, so I was just trying to focus on each rep. I mean, [NBA life during a pandemic], it’s not that bad. We’re getting paid millions of dollars to hoop and do something we love every day. We’ll figure the rest out.”
Durant’s long-awaited return to Golden State was diminished because Chase Center was to be without fans. In his three years with the Warriors, they won two championships and went to a third NBA Finals before he tore his Achilles’ in Game 5 and the Raptors derailed the chance for a three-peat.
Durant’s decision to join the Warriors after nine years with Seattle/Oklahoma City was a controversial one because he was accused of ring chasing and joining a team that had just won a record 73 games. Durant took that criticism personally but had no regrets. He also said he knew when it was time to leave Golden State, and he signed a maximum deal with the Nets despite the injury.
The Warriors suffered last season in Durant’s absence as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson also missed considerable time with debilitating injuries.
Durant’s tenure in Golden State produced some of the most dominant teams in NBA history. The Warriors were 32-6 in the postseason from 2016-18 with only one series — the 2018 Western Conference finals against the Rockets — going the distance.
“There are so many great teams that play in this league and it is tough to say that the team is the best ever,” he said. “You know, it was a historical run — losing one game in the playoffs  — and that was in the Finals. Steph played his best basketball in the Finals that year. I played my best basketball, as well. So, everybody was at the top of their games during that run — especially that year — but it’s tough to say. There are so many great teams that have played, that won championships in this league, for me to say that we were the best. But we played great.”
ON THE RISE
New era dawns with Williams
The Celtics found out how improved the Suns are when they were thumped, 100-91, in Phoenix last Sunday. It’s taken some years, coaching and management changes, and a plethora of failed lottery picks — and then some good ones — but the Suns are finally competitors in the Western Conference.
Their 15-9 record entering Friday was fourth in the West, even though they have been beset by minor injuries that have taken away Devin Booker, Jae Crowder, and most recently Dario Saric, who acknowledged he tested positive for COVID-19.
Coach Monty Williams has integrated offseason acquisition Chris Paul into the offense as the unquestioned leader and orchestrator. The Suns pursued Paul and his $40 million-per-season contract because they were seeking an impact point guard who could mentor, teach, and take the team to the next level.
Paul did those things in his one-year stint with the Thunder, leading them to a surprising playoff appearance. The Suns, on the other hand, arrived in the bubble last summer with only a slight chance to make the playoffs. They were supposed to enjoy the sun (no pun intended), play out the string, and then head back to Phoenix and prepare for the lottery.
But what occurred was a spirited march toward the play-in tournament. Phoenix did all it could, winning all eight games before losing out to Memphis on the final day.
Williams’s club was supposed to carry that momentum over, with the additions of Paul and Crowder, and become a contender in the West. That is what has happened, but it hasn’t been easy.
“The transition has been one with all the things you talked about,” Williams said. “Inconsistencies, the injuries, guys in and out of the lineup, and trying to figure out how to play with eight new guys. We’ve tried not to let those things be an excuse.
“Are we playing the way we want to? At times. But then there’s been times where we’ve had some inconsistencies and we’ve tried to work through that by simplifying our playbook, being really clean with our coverages, and just attacking where we are. We can’t change the dynamics around what we do. We can control our preparation, how hard we play.”
Williams’s story is one of the more remarkable ones in NBA history. While he was an assistant with the Thunder in February 2016, his wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car accident. The couple had five children. Williams walked away from the game, and then eventually emerged as the perfect role model and leader for the Suns, who hired him before last season.
He was the perfect motivator for a Suns organization that needed a charismatic face and a coach with impeccable faith. The bubble experience thrust the Suns back into the league’s consciousness and expectations have been high because of the talented Booker, along with former No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.
“This is a tough league and nobody cares about what you did in the bubble,” Williams said. “That’s over and as an organization and a team we need to learn from that. We have to let it go. We have a new team and so many things we’re trying to implement, the talent we have.”
Of course, Williams said he has regrets about a handful of games so far, but the Suns beat the Celtics and Bucks this past week, and also have wins over the Jazz, Raptors, and Pacers.
“I think we’ve done the best we can,” Williams said. “There are games we feel like we let go this year, two, three, four games we feel like we could have under our belt this year. As a staff we’re pretty critical of ourselves, but I feel like the guys, our team, the resiliency of our group has shown up this year and we’re proud of that. Our assistant coaches continue to push the culture that we wanted. Guys being ready to play. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”
Like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics, Booker has had to adjust to being blitzed on double teams to get the ball out of his hands. Those catch-and-shoot 3-pointers he launched with ease over his first few seasons are now more difficult with changing defenses.
“That’s the tough part about Book’s life in the NBA,” Williams said. “I watch Washington play with Bradley Beal and teams don’t play him the way that they play Book, not consistently. So that keeps him from getting as many catch-shot opportunities, so that’s why we don’t mind him taking off the dribble because he works on that, sometimes it’s 6, 7, 8 feet behind the line, but he works on it.
“That’s the conundrum for him and for us, but we try to put it to our advantage trying to put him in positions we don’t think teams are going to help and it allows Chris, DA, and all of our guys lanes to the basket.”
The additions of Paul and Crowder have had an impact on younger players such as Cameron Johnson, a second-year forward who is trying to soak in all knowledge, especially from Paul, a likely Hall of Famer.
“Chris and Jae really just add a veteran presence,” Johnson said. “They really have a lot of knowledge in the game and talking to them you’re able to just pick out little things that you can apply and see what they do and why they do it and how they conduct themselves on the court and in practice. Those are all beneficial and it’s great to have veterans like that.
“It’s tough to pick one thing. It’s an accumulation of things, mind-set, little concepts, and how to attack different defenses. [Paul] has the elite ability to find people. The biggest thing that’s helpful to me is hearing what he sees. And hearing enough to understand his decision-making.”
Warm embrace to health care workers
Cameron Johnson, who burned the Celtics with four 3-pointers in the Suns’ win last Sunday, is an emerging standout, but more importantly, his mother is a school nurse in Pittsburgh who has educated herself and her family on COVID-19.
“When I was home at the beginning of quarantine, she was doing a lot of the contact-tracing courses through Johns Hopkins and then going at it and figuring out all she could learn,” he said. “I call her any time I have any questions.
“I remember when I was at home she was dealing with it a lot, getting ready for the school year, how her job would work being a nurse in the schools now. A kid gets COVID, he or she is coming straight to you. I definitely have a really high appreciation for all the nurses, all the health care workers. They sacrificed so much and they’ve done a lot to save and heal our country. We need them and they need to know that they are appreciated.”
The Suns allowed fans into the arena for the first time against the Celtics, giving free tickets to health care works, first responders, and their families. They doubled their allowed attendance to 3,000 for their Feb. 8 game against the Cavaliers.
“It’s pretty special,” Johnson said. “You’re seeing 1,000, 2,000, or 3,000 people at the arena and you’re used to seeing 16,000-17,000. It’s exciting. It lifts up the spirit of the arena, the energy, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The foot injury sustained by Clippers forward Paul George is expected to sideline him at least a few more games. Patrick Beverley also missed the Feb. 5 game against the Celtics with knee soreness. The Clippers are competing with the Lakers and Jazz for the top record in the Western Conference. The Clippers are so deep, however, they should be able to compensate for the loss of George. Former Celtic Marcus Morris is coming off the bench, as is Lou Williams. Terance Mann, who grew up in Lowell, has cemented a role as backup point guard and played well in place of Beverley. One player who has proven to be a key pickup is forward Nicolas Batum, who was bought out by the Hornets to create salary-cap space to sign Gordon Hayward. Batum, playing on a minimum deal, has started in LA’s three-forward offense and went into the weekend shooting 46.2 percent from the 3-point line . . . The Raptors announced they will finish their season in Tampa after COVID-19 restrictions in Canada against visitors from the United States were extended. The Raptors have not played a game in Toronto since last March and have had to make a home in Florida after playing nearly three months in the bubble. Players said they have become accustomed to playing away from Toronto, but it could be viewed as a competitive disadvantage . . . Teams such as the Celtics, who are going to be buyers in the trade market, may have to wait awhile for other clubs to become sellers because of the new 10-team playoff format in each conference. Seeds 7 through 10 will participate in a play-in tournament similar to the bubble with two emerging to join the top six seeds in the playoffs. This may deter teams from becoming sellers before the March 25 deadline. The Celtics are looking to make a deal to use at least a portion of their $28.5 million trade exception to acquire an impact player. But the only two teams who appear out of the playoff race are Detroit and Minnesota. The remaining 28 teams have realistic shots of claiming the 10 seeds in each conference.