Kevin Durant was back and, while there were fits of rust, mostly showed reminders of why he has an MVP trophy on the mantle. It wasn’t just the 27 points on 18 shots, it was that signature effortless, polished scoring touch that has made KD one of the NBA’s biggest stars. That was back.
Durant and Russell Westbrook were back. The Thunder were supposed to be back.
But this movie didn’t follow the script the Thunder expected and frankly need — Oklahoma City lost to New Orleans 112-104.
Rather, this game was a reminder of what a mountain remains in front of OKC just to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. The 5-13 Thunder will need to finish with at least 47 wins (the current pace of the eight-seed Phoenix Suns), and likely a little more. That means going at least 42-22 the rest of the way — a makable number, they had a higher winning percentage than that last season, but one that leaves little margin for error.
However, it’s going to be easy because the West is so deep with talent, which is what they were reminded Tuesday — going up against New Orleans is automatic win anymore. Not with Anthony Davis playing like he wants Durant’s MVP trophy. And it’s not just the Big Easy, there is no easy win in Sacramento or really any stop in the West.
Durant looked good for a guy who missed 17 games with the first significant injury of his career. His first play of the game he drained a three pointer. Over the course of the game he showed off his burst and handles that let him get to the rim and finish, he knocked down catch-and-shoot jumpers, and that Nowitzki-esque fadeaway jumper is back too.
Which is good — for the Thunder, and just for fans of basketball. There are few more compelling players in the league. Few guys are just a joy to watch like KD.
But he and the Thunder can’t afford the moral victories of just being back anymore. They need actual victories to get their goal of making the playoffs out West.