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Kevin Durant begins Suns title quest in Year 16 by revisiting Warriors championship days

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 24, 2023
Entering his age-35 season with the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Durant will start his year with an emotional return to face the Golden State Warriors

It’s been 1,630 days since Kevin Durant last played in front of Golden State Warriors fans. At the time, he was still a member of the most unfair team in NBA history. The Dubs had just held off the Houston Rockets for the umpteenth time in the playoffs, winning Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals despite losing Durant mid-game to a calf injury.

No one knew that injury would limit Durant to just 12 minutes the rest of the postseason, all of which came in Game 5 of an NBA Finals matchup the Warriors would eventually lose. No one knew it was the beginning of the end of KD’s tenure in the Bay Area, as his Achilles tear in the Finals and subsequent decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets would officially close the book on this peak chapter of Golden State’s story.

And nobody knew it would take four-and-a-half years for Durant and Warriors fans to finally have their long-awaited, cathartic reunion.

Tuesday’s season opener for the Phoenix Suns finally affords them both the chance to remember that golden era and soak in the memories.

“I’m excited to play in front of those fans,” Durant said. “I experienced some incredible moments there, and we had built a bond that don’t really have to be spoken about, me and the fans there in the Bay Area.”

Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season recovering from his Achilles tear. The following year, he returned to the Chase Center as a member of the Nets and even received a video tribute, but during the pandemic, fans weren’t permitted in NBA arenas yet. Over the next two years, knee injuries deprived him of his opportunity to reconnect with the Warriors fanbase.

This year, the NBA decided not to wait until January to schedule Durant’s overdue homecoming. And after such a long delay, the 13-time All-Star and two-time champion will allow himself a moment of self-reflection Tuesday night before turning his focus back to Suns vs. Warriors.

“I can’t tell you right now how it’ll be, obviously, but when you look up and you see all the people that I played in front of for that long, and you realize the memories you had in those colors, stuff might start rushing back in that moment,” Durant said. “I always reflect on my time there. I always try to pull from each time that I had, and each stop that I played in, and try to implement it in some form or fashion into the new situation. So it was a great experience playing for the Warriors.”

For most of his Suns teammates, playing the KD version of the Warriors wasn’t as fun. Golden State looks different these days, with Chris Paul joining an aging Big 3 of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But Eric Gordon — who knows CP3 and the Dubs well from his time with the Houston Rockets — doesn’t share the same fond memories. Even so, Gordon can appreciate what that moment will mean to his new teammate.

“I remember when I was on the Rockets, we faced them every year in the playoffs,” Gordon said. “And he did well there. He did what was needed, they won a couple championships, and so I’m pretty sure he’s loved there. It’s gonna be exciting for him and for the fans there.”

Playing in the East with the Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal didn’t have to see the Warriors as often, but trying to defend that group was never enjoyable.

“Man, you want to talk about tough to guard?” Beal asked with a smirk. “That was very difficult. But they were just collected, man. You could just see they played with joy, played with energy….Those teams were very electric, nightmare teams. So we try to leave ’em in the past.”

On Tuesday night, in a primetime matchup nearly five years in the making, Kevin Durant will get his moment of recognition, enjoy the reminders of that championship feeling…and then immediately set his mind to pursuing the next one.

The Warriors have won another ring without Durant, so it’d be natural to assume his focus is winning one without the Dubs. But the one thing he’s not interested in, as he embarks on that journey with his latest superstar-laden squad, is comparing these Suns to the title teams he played for.

“Championship teams I’ve been on, I don’t think any team in the history of the league can compare to that,” Durant said. “And just like, Denver Nuggets last year, nobody could compare to that team. So it’s hard for me to try to compare these two teams before the season starts on where we may go. There’s no point of that. But the same traits as far as the hard work, the guys coming in and paying attention to detail, I like where we are right now with that.”

Kevin Durant is the same as ever at age 35

Last month, Kevin Durant turned 35 years old. It’s an age where even all-time NBA greats fall off, and entering Year 16 in the league, his window of contention won’t stay open forever.

But if you ask his Suns teammates, they haven’t seen any signs of regression from the Slim Reaper.

“Shiiiit, I don’t see one thing, man,” Jusuf Nurkic said.

“He hasn’t changed much,” Chimezie Metu added. “Still puts the ball in the basket at an extremely high rate.”

“I know he just turned 35, but I’ve seen no drop,” concluded Keita Bates-Diop, KD’s primary defender in practice. “I’ve seen no loss in his step, no short on his jumper, nothing. He seems like he’s 25.”

Durant is the oldest player on the Suns and the 23rd-oldest player in the league. He’s old enough that Bol Bol cited him as his favorite player growing up. KD’s been in the NBA for almost half of his life, and as he’s gotten older, he’s watched and more of his former coaches (Scott Brooks) and teammates (Ryan Gomes with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or Chauncey Billups with Team USA) find jobs on the sidelines.

But Durant just keeps chugging along — something he expected of himself 16 years ago, back when he was still a rookie.

“That was my vision,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to be. As a young player, you look up to guys who’ve played a long time in the league — the Kobe Bryants, the [Kevin Garnetts], Paul Pierce, you see those guys that have been 15-plus years in the league. You see that as a young player, you want to emulate that. Vince Carter, guys like LeBron James, all of those guys, you want to emulate. So that’s the goal for me is being around as long as possible.”

“Being around” doesn’t necessarily mean “playing at a high level.” But Durant is coming off a season where he averaged 29-7-5 stat line on 50-40-90 shooting splits with the Nets and Suns. Even in the playoffs, when it felt like he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, KD still put up a 29-9-6 stat line on 47.8 percent shooting.

In his eyes, the love of the game that drives him to be the hardest worker in the gym is exactly what’s kept him going strong.

“I don’t know if I can give you keys or any secret potion or magic that happened,” Durant said. “It just happened, I guess. Just being enthusiastic about the game every day and wanting to get better, that just forces you to get in the gym. And it’s simple as that. What you do the most is what you’re gonna be best at.”

In his short amount of time in Phoenix, Durant’s workout regimen has become legendary, renowned by two different sets of Suns teammates. Coach Frank Vogel calls KD more of a “lead by example” guy, and he’s set the tone with his rigorous work ethic during practices and individual workouts.

“I think the work ethic is something I had not seen close up, how hard he goes in his individual workouts,” Vogel said. “The more you learn about him, you learn that this is just the way he’s been. There’s a lot of guys with talent in this league and the game in general, but not all of ’em become great players and elite players like KD. I think he’s a perfect exhibition of a really talented guy that is the hardest-working guy around. Put it all together, and you see what we got.”

It’s the sort of thing that helped Durant see Devin Booker as a kindred spirit and made their partnership seamless from the start. Book grew up watching KD as well, but despite being eight years younger, the two bonded over their shared love of putting in the work.

They’re both hoopers, through and through.

“I was a fan first, and I’ve always looked up to KD,” Booker said. “To be here firsthand now and get to spend time and grow that relationship, it’s a full-circle moment in life. We have a great deal of respect for each other, and we continue to push each other. I know he’s always in the gym, he doesn’t take a rep off, he doesn’t take a day off. So those are the types of people I like to be surrounded with.”

The injury concern

Frank Vogel came up in the era of two-a-day practices, so he’s always been “pro-play” as long as guys are healthy. A coach like that has a special appreciation for someone like Kevin Durant, who takes immense care of his body while still working harder than anyone.

“In this game as basketball players, I think taking care of your body is an important part of it, but I also think going hard throughout your career in all your work, you build your body up that it’s not ever shocked by high-intensity work,” Vogel said. “Because that’s how these guys work. So maybe that’s something to it.”

Of course, the injury bug hasn’t been kind to Durant over the last few years. Since missing the entire 2019-20 campaign recovering from the torn Achilles, he’s also missed 37, 27 and 27 games over the last three seasons. It comes with the territory at this point, but Durant isn’t entertaining the idea of load management or changing his approach to the 82-game marathon.

“Can’t,” he said bluntly. “If some shit’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. You try to prevent me from being injured or being out there, then I honestly don’t know what good that does, you know? Just let me play. Whatever happens, happens. We just trust that we’ll figure it out from there.”

Durant hasn’t had any conversations with the coaching staff about conserving his minutes. As he learned firsthand during warmups before his first home Suns game last year, injury can occur at any time. So in a season with championship aspirations on the line, and his window for contention starting to close, there’s no time to ease up off the gas.

If anything, the Suns’ improved depth will allow him to do that naturally.

“If we do what we need to do on the floor every night, then you don’t have to play 45 minutes a night or 44 when we got a deep team like this,” he said. “So we just gotta be ready to play, and whatever happens, happens.”

With nearly 1,000 regular-season games to his name, Durant understands the physical toll of playing in this league. He jokes that he’s still skinny enough to keep his “Slim Reaper” nickname, but he believes his weight room routine has allowed him to weather all that contact over the years.

On this Suns team, Jusuf Nurkic will take the brunt of the physicality. But if Nurk can’t close out games on defense, Vogel may need Durant to harness his experience with those Warriors Death Lineups and play the 5 for short stints.

“Having a little bit of a hybrid identity is something that I hope to achieve,” Vogel explained. “I don’t know if we have the exact personnel to do it. My Indiana teams were big 100 percent of the time, my Lakers teams where [Anthony Davis] played half the time at the 4, half at the 5. Our team, I anticipate, will be mostly playing with a true center, but there’s times throughout the course of an 82-game season where a small lineup is required.”

KD understands the physical exertion that requires, but he’s willing to play the 5 for stretches, optimizing the versatility and floor-spacing that comes with going small.

“I feel like I’ve conditioned my brain and my body to be able to adapt to any situation any time on a basketball floor,” Durant said. “So whatever coach need me to do, I gotta go out there and do it to the best of my abilities. I’m not saying I’m gonna execute every time down, but I have the capacity to do so.”

In training camp, Kevin Durant helped lead the charge in establishing a defensive standard for the rest of his teammates. In preseason, he did the same while reminding everyone how fast he fan heat up offensively. And in Golden State on Tuesday, against a familiar but changed foe, he’ll take a rare opportunity to appreciate his past accomplishments before turning his attention to what comes next in Year 16.

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