Durant has not played since getting hurt in the Nets’ Jan. 15 win over the New Orleans Pelicans and will provide a huge lift for a team that went 5-16 in his absence.
“I feel energized,” Durant said after Thursday’s shootaround. “I feel grateful for the opportunity to play. It sucks being out and not being around the team. I felt bad not being able to help and contribute and try to turn some things around for us. But get an opportunity tonight and hopefully moving forward where I can inject what I do into this team and hopefully it provides some good results.”
Without Durant on the floor, coupled with the trade of James Harden and the periodic absences of Kyrie Irving, the Nets have slid to 32-31 and eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons, who came over from the Sixers in the Harden trade, has yet to play as he continues to deal with a back issue. Irving still sits out home games because of the New York City vaccination mandate. Durant was asked whether he feels more pressure given the precarious position the Nets find themselves in standings-wise.
“I don’t look at myself as that, as a savior,” Durant said. “But I know what I can do and how much I can help this team and what we’re missing as a group, but I’m not trying to go out there and win a game by myself tonight or make it all about me. I just try to go out there and help and be a good teammate and do what I do. I know what I bring to the table and try to do it to the best of my abilities.”
It’s been a sharp decline for a team that had been at or near the top of the standings when Durant played like a strong MVP candidate before the knee injury.
“It was difficult because I couldn’t calm some of the noise down with my play,” he said of watching the Nets slide in his absence. “That’s usually the best remedy for stuff like that. So it was eating at me that I couldn’t go out there and perform to take some pressure off the guys and the organization, but I’m proud of how everybody just kept pushing and kept coming to work every day, kept grinding. We know how crazy this business is — anything can happen. So we all have to be prepared and still come to work every day as professionals, and I like how we did that.”
Durant said “there’s nothing set in stone” as far as any potential minutes restriction goes on Thursday, but he expects to stay in contact with the Nets’ training staff throughout the game as they monitor his return.
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Durant returned to practice right after the All-Star break and has been around the team, and on the bench, a lot more over the past couple of weeks. His availability will give the struggling group an emotional lift with 19 regular-season games remaining.
“I didn’t want to play through pain,” Durant said. “I still felt some pain in my knee throughout the losing streak. And obviously I know I can go out there and help, but I didn’t want to hurt myself even more trying to go out there even more and be a superhero, just to be out there. But I’m glad that I was able to get some time to work on my body, and the training staff did a great job of working with me every day, and now I’m here and just see where I’m at after this game and keep building from here.”
Durant remains confident that his team can still get back on track before the playoffs begin next month.
“It’s just all about taking it a day at a time,” Durant said. “I can be confident all I want, if we don’t go out there and actually put the work in, then nothing’s going to happen. So I can speak about how confident we are and how things look and give you taglines what our team may be; I can market my team to you right now, but we got to go out there and actually get in some reps, practice and the game in order to really see who we are, and what works best for us …
“We are cutting it close. There’s under 20 games left in the season, but that’s the situation we’re in, that’s the circumstances we’re in. So what? We got to go out there and figure it out.”
Durant last spoke before a loss to the Heat on Feb. 12, and he knows what the narrative surrounding his team is at the moment as it has struggled to put wins together without him.
“We know what the standings are,” Durant said. “We know everybody’s telling us every day how far we’re dropping and where we may end up, constantly telling us the situation we’re in. But we understand that and know that each day is important, so we’re focused on tonight and just keep plugging away.”
As the Nets try to make a push down the stretch, Durant has been pleased by what he’s seen from Simmons in the individual work he’s been able to watch and conversations they’ve had. It remains unclear when Simmons, who has yet to be cleared for practice and is dealing with a back issue, will debut for the Nets.
“He seems excited to play,” Durant said. “Just being patient with his health, just monitoring him every day and seeing where he can go from here. When guys are injured, their situation is tough to gauge, but he’s walking around excited and being part of the team every single day, and once he’s ready to play we’ll welcome him with open arms.”