- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was in Charlotte over All-Star Weekend in 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 potential for the devastating 1-2 punch he can form with Devin Booker in a 105-91 win to snap the Charlotte Hornets’ five-game win streak.
“I’ve played in almost 1,000 basketball games, but today I was nervous,” Durant told Bally Sports Arizona after the game.
Durant scored 23 points in just 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. But it was the playmaking combination with Booker that left the biggest impression.
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. But it was when they 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 game having shot 10-of-15.
Those stretches, essentially, made it a stress-free win as the Suns never trailed.
When Durant, who played four six-minute shifts and then the final three minutes as part of a minute 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.
“To get to where we need to go, we have to be efficient basketball players,” Durant said of his pairing with Booker, whom he described as a “pure basketball player” and “one of a kind.”
Once the minute restriction lifts and Durant’s minutes alongside Booker can increase — or so coach Monty Williams’ plan seems to be — the team’s full potential can be unlocked.
“I feel like I fit in pretty well — everybody out there was trying to make me as comfortable as possible, coaches and players as well, so I just gotta keep grinding,” said Durant, who also contributed six rebounds, two assists and two blocks in the win. “This jersey on me will look normal as games go on, as we start to keep building who we are as a team, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Wednesday night’s game 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 shooting night, going 1-of-8. Josh Okogie, who kept his starting spot after averaging 18.5 points after getting a boosted role following the Durant trade, scored just four.
The Suns also hinted at what might be an issue getting to the foul line at times with three players that specialize in midrange shots. The Hornets, missing star LaMelo Ball after he suffered a broken ankle earlier this week, drew 13 more free throws.
Nonetheless, the Durant rollout was a success after a calculated plan that allowed for bonus practice and conditioning time and a game against one of the league’s weaker teams.
“As far as Kevin is concerned, just as efficient as he’s always been. And even though we scripted a lot in practice … when you get out there on the floor, it’s a totally different deal,” Williams said. “So there were some hiccups tonight (as to) what play we were running, that kind of thing. And 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.
“I thought the team fed off of him just being himself tonight.”
Kelly Oubre Jr. led Charlotte with 26 points but was just 9-of-24 shooting as the Suns held the Hornets to 36% shooting.
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