CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — New team, same Kevin Durant.
The Durant era in Phoenix got off to solid start Wednesday night with the 13-time NBA All-Star scoring 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting, adding an explosive offensive element to an already dangerous offense in his Suns debut.
Durant, playing for his fourth team in the last seven seasons, added six rebounds and two blocks as Phoenix beat the Charlotte Hornets 105-91.
“I’ve played in almost a thousand basketball games, but today I was nervous,” Durant said. “It’s a new team, new group, and I want to play hard for them and be coachable. So, I was thinking about all that today.”
Durant said despite his success, he still feels like he has something to prove to his teammates and coaches. New team, same Kevin Durant.
“I feel there is pressure on me and who I am every day,” Durant said. “I put that on me.”
Devin Booker seemed to feed off Durant, scoring 37 points in the win.
“He’s just a pure basketball player,” Durant said about Booker.
Coming off a knee injury that has kept him out of action since Jan. 8, Durant was limited to 27 minutes while on a playing-time restriction.
Wearing No. 35, Durant was greeted by a loud ovation as he was introduced at the Spectrum Center and fans held up cell phones straining to record video of him in his white jersey.
He missed a foul line jumper on his team’s first possession, but scored his first basket with the Suns a few moments later on a driving left-handed layup. Durant followed with a block on Hornets rookie center Mark Williams and then knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing as Phoenix bolted to a 9-0 lead it would never surrender.
He wasn’t perfect in his return, turning the ball over twice, including once when he dribbled off his own leg while driving to the left.
“We scripted a lot in practice but when you get out on the floor it is a totally different deal,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “So there were some hiccups as to what play we were running and that kind of thing. But it’s pretty cool to be able to give a guy the ball and he can get to a spot and get off a really good shot.”
The 13-time All-Star was acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a blockbuster deal in which the Suns parted ways with Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and four first-round picks. He was the last of the big three to be traded away by Brooklyn, joining James Harden and Kyrie Irving before him.
Like Durant’s previous stops in Seattle, Oklahoma City, Golden State and Brooklyn, the expectations are high — and there is a different level of excitement with his arrival.
“You feel it,” Williams said. “You feel it at the (team) hotel when people are lined up outside. You feel it in the gym. … Yeah, I feel it. I learned a long time ago that pressure and expectations are a privilege and you have to embrace those things because that is where the good stuff is.”
Williams admitted that anything less than an NBA championship this season would feel like a disappointment, but added that is true of any of the league’s top teams.
Durant’s has been through plenty during his 15-year NBA career, but this is the first time he’s joined a new team midway through the season.
The Suns hope Durant’s addition gets them over the hump after losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the 2021 NBA Finals.
The Suns (34-29) are in fourth place in the Western Conference.
Williams expects Durant will have a major positive impact on his new teammates, which include Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.
“He’s more than a generational talent, he’s a historic talent,” Williams said. “From that standpoint you can use your imagination, just from a scoring standpoint. But I have tried to have an open mind about it not to box him in and say ‘he’s going to be this, this and that.’ So I’m looking forward to it as much as everybody else is.”
Hornets coach Steve Clifford said the Suns are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.
“They now have the number one thing that you have to have to win close games in the playoffs – they have two guys who can draw help without the aid of the pick-and-roll,” Clifford said. “So if you just give Booker the ball, you have to help. You can’t guard him one-on-one. If you give Kevin the ball, nobody can guard him one-on-one. Nobody. Then you throw in the Chris Paul pick-and-roll piece with Ayton, the way he’s grown.
“Playoff basketball is going to come down to, and it’s always been the same thing, how many guys on the court can get a shot on their own, and then what can they do when they draw help? And they’re two of the best guys in the league. It certainly puts them in the conversation.”
Durant has spent the past couple of weeks getting to know his new teammates on a personal level, as well as how they operate on the floor while mostly watching from the sideline as he recovers from a sprained knee that has kept him out since Jan. 8.
He said his knee has been pain-free for the last couple of weeks.
“Man, I missed the game,” Durant said, “I’m excited. Looking forward to the next game.” ___
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