MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The shoulder shimmy at the free throw line, the one-legged runners in the lane, the silky smooth 3-pointers from the top of the arc.
It’s been eight long months since Kevin Durant has been able to put those otherworldly skills on display in an NBA game. In his first game back from the fractured right foot that derailed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season last year, it seemed almost as if Durant had never left.
The former MVP scored 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting and had four assists in 22 minutes of Oklahoma City’s preseason opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night.
More importantly, Durant showed no ill effects from the devastating foot injury that required three surgeries to repair. There was no limping, no grimacing, not even a noticeable shake of his right leg to work off any rust.
“I felt great,” Durant said. “I think it was a little different. I haven’t been in my routine in a while as far as going to shootaround, taking my nap, getting to the game. So all that stuff was different. But once I got on the court, I felt right at home.”
Durant had not played in a game since Feb. 19 against Dallas. He missed 55 games total and the final 28 of the season, an absence that was excruciating for one for one of the NBA’s brightest stars. He had to sit and watch his team miss the playoffs for the first time in five years, then spent the summer rehabbing his injury rather than playing the pickup games that he loves so dearly.
“I know what that feels like to be out for a long period of time and to sit back and be watching your teammates play without going out there and being able to help them,” teammate Russell Westbrook said. “So him just coming back tonight and trying to go out there and find his rhythm, kind of get back into the swing of things is always great.”
He didn’t practice with the team until it opened training camp on Sept. 29, but new coach Billy Donovan raved about his work ethic and presence for a team determined to return to the Western Conference elite this season.
“He’s been really good,” Donovan said. “I think he’s been getting back his rhythm, so to speak, scoring the ball. He’s had some incredible flashes.”
After missing a long 2-pointer on his first possession, Durant got on the board with another jumper less than four minutes into the game. He initiated contact on a drive to the hoop later in the quarter, then really got going during his action in the third.
He hit a 3 from the top of the arc, dropped a couple more jumpers and knocked down a tough, one-armed, off-balance runner in the paint. Just before his night came to an end in the closing moments of the third quarter, Durant got Timberwolves rookie Nemanja Bjelica up in the air on a pump fake, initiated contact and drew a foul, smiling as he pulled himself up off the court.
“I don’t force things,” Durant said. “I just tried to let the game come to me and play as simple as I can.”
He has always made it look so easy. But the process of coming back from the problematic Jones fracture was a frustrating and disheartening experience. The journey from that game against the Mavericks last February to this one against the Timberwolves feeling like an eternity.
“It seems like years ago,” Durant said after the morning shootaround. “I’m here now. Try not to think about the past. I know I learned a lot from that situation and just trying to move forward and continue to have confidence in myself.”
Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine filmed a television commercial with Durant in the offseason and said he is happy to see one of the highest-profile players in the league back where he belongs.
“Every time you have a superstar like that who is hurt, you always want to see him in the game,” LaVine said. “Especially as a competitor, you always want to go against him. I’m glad he’s back and healthy.”
Westbrook had 14 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds in 22 minutes and Serge Ibaka added 18 points in 20 minutes for the Thunder.