Kevin Durant has dazzled in the postseason, having claimed two Most Valuable Player Awards in N.B.A. finals. But before Saturday night, his last postseason appearance was in 2019.
Durant, a member of the Golden State Warriors then, had worked hurriedly to return to Game 5 of that year’s N.B.A. finals from a calf strain. He played about a quarter against the Toronto Raptors before limping off the court with an Achilles’ tendon tear.
Plenty has occurred in basketball and in the world since. But on Saturday night, a tinge of familiarity returned.
There was Durant, in Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, pacing the Nets in scoring in front of over 14,000 cheering fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“The whole ride this year, seeing him come back from such a devastating injury, he had such a long layoff, such a big hill to climb and a lot of doubt,” Nets Coach Steve Nash said of Durant. “Who knows if he comes back anywhere near the level he’s accustomed to?
“So a tribute to his work ethic, his sacrifice, his talent, that he’s still able to play at an incredibly high level after that injury, that layoff.”
The N.B.A. had waited months to find out how Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden would perform as headliners in a star-studded lineup.
To be sure, the Nets are working through wrinkles typically smoothed over during a traditional training camp, or even the regular season. Cycles of injuries prevented Durant, Irving and Harden, who came over from Houston in a blockbuster trade in January, from sharing the court often.
Game 1, a 104-93 victory over Boston, was the first time Durant, Irving, Harden, Blake Griffin and Joe Harris started together this season.
“We knew it would be fun to play in front of the fans, but to step out there and see the place packed like that and the energy in the building was unbelievable,” Nash said. “I think there was a little bit of newness in many ways. We weren’t sharp offensively, but we found a way.”
The Nets brushed off a sluggish start and, perhaps, the unfamiliarity of playing in front of a sizable crowd for the first time since the N.B.A. paused the 2019-20 season in March.
An off-brand version of the Nets emerged in the bubble restart last year at Walt Disney World in Florida. Durant and Irving were rehabilitating from injuries. Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan did not play after testing positive for the coronavirus. Wilson Chandler opted out of resuming the season.
The Nets had to scramble to fill out their roster, and Toronto quickly swept them from the first round of the playoffs.
Saturday presented a traditional feel, more in line with what was envisioned when Durant and Irving shook up the N.B.A. by deciding to join forces in free agency before the 2019-20 season.
Barclays Center rocked and reverberated with 14,391 spectators in attendance, the maximum allowed and just a few thousand short of the arena’s full capacity.
“Maybe I’m speaking for myself, but the crowd kind of just threw me off a little bit,” Harden said. “It was pretty loud in there. The vibe was what we’ve been missing.”
The Nets missed their first 10 3-pointers and trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half.
“They definitely gave us an advantage, and it was weird,” Durant said of playing again in front of a large crowd. “We haven’t seen them all season. And there was 1,500 there the last couple months of the season, but to see people at the front row and then see more in the upper and lower bowl, it was pretty cool. And I’m pretty sure they enjoyed the win, but we want to play better for them as well.”
Durant, Irving and Harden ignited in the third quarter, providing the Nets with their first 22 points of the second half, while erasing a 6-point halftime deficit.
Importantly, the Nets limited Boston to 40 second-half points.
“Maybe we just rushed,” Nash said. “We were a little impatient to start the game. I’d probably say the truth is somewhere in the middle — a little bit that they haven’t played much together, a little bit that it was an exciting evening for everyone to walk in the gym to see that many people, and our fans were outstanding.”
Durant ended with 32 points and 12 rebounds. Both were game highs.
“It’s always great playing in this time of year,” Durant said. “That intensity is the next level; it’s different than what’s in the regular season. It felt great to be back out there among the best teams and players in the league and looking forward to Game 2.”
Irving scored 29 points. Harden added 21 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.
“It definitely felt different compared to what most of the season felt like, going to different arenas,” Irving said. “But coming back home and welcoming a lot of our fans home, you could feel the anticipation for a quality basketball game out there.”
Even this depleted version of the Celtics is too skillful and prideful to be classified as a breezy matchup for the Nets.
Marcus Smart is lucky he isn’t a debit card, because there is no charge he’s unwilling to take. Robert Williams was a nuisance in the post, blocking nine shots, a Celtics single-game playoff record. (Blocks became an official statistic after Bill Russell had retired.)
Boston will need much more from Jayson Tatum (6 for 20 for 22 points) and Kemba Walker (5 for 16 for 15 points) to steal a game or two and turn the matchup into a series.
“Anything can happen,” said Irving, a former Celtic who would know firsthand when he said Boston was a well-coached team. “Especially against the Celtics. That lucky Irishman is always around the Celtics.”
Irving added: “It’s going to be a great battle between a lot of great players on the floor.”
If it is the case that “anything” does not happen, Brooklyn will continue using this series to get needed repetitions before facing what will be a more difficult second-round opponent, the winner of the series between the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the sixth-seeded Miami Heat.