OAKLAND -- It was clear in the days and hours before tipoff and just as apparent nearly an hour after the final horn Saturday night that Kevin Durant needed this.
He craved the bumping and grinding and swishing, all the basketball activities that remind him both of how much he loves the game and of the fun he missed out on while his knee was healing.
His knee is fine now and he could hardly wait to prove it, needing all of 35 seconds into the Warriors-Pelicans game to sprint along the baseline and swoop past 7-foot-2 New Orleans center Alexis Ajinca for a filthy reverse dunk that sent the Oracle Arena crowd into a spasm of euphoria.
Durant was back, just as they remembered him.
“If you get a dunk the first play of the game . . . no matter how long you’ve been out, that feels good,” Durant said after a 123-101 victory.
Durant finished with 16 points, a team-high 10 rebounds and six assists. He played 31 minutes, also a team-high and certainly more than might be reasonably expected after missing almost six weeks with a sprained left knee and bruised tibia.
Yet Durant wanted more, and he tried to persuade coach Steve Kerr into additional playing time.
“Kevin wants to play 48 minutes every night, so we have to tell him he’s not allowed to do that,” Kerr said. “Thirty-one was about as high as I could have imagined going with him.”
Durant understood this decision, even if a part of him wasn’t really feeling it.
“I felt like I could keep playing,” he said. “But obviously, we’ve got the 1-seed locked up. And we’re going into the playoffs with a good rhythm.
“But I haven’t played in 20 games, so I definitely wanted to be out there longer.
“But coach understands the big picture.”
The “big picture” is a direct reference to the playoffs, which begin next weekend. The Warriors have two more regular-season games before launching into what they anticipate will be a two-month pursuit.
Getting to the top, should the Warriors get there, will require superlative efforts from Durant, as well as the many teammates who after initially being staggered by his loss, losing five of seven, had bounced back to win 13 in a row before Durant rejoined them for the 14th straight Saturday night.
“It sure was good to see him back out there,” Klay Thompson said.
“He’s been anxious for a couple weeks now, just talking about trying to get back out there,” Draymond Green said. “He’s been working extremely hard. To come back that fast from the sprain that he came back from, and the bone bruise . . . shows a lot about how hard he worked.”
As relieved as Durant is to be rejoining his teammates for this endeavor, he may have been even more enthusiastic about some of the simple things he was forced to go without as he rested and rehabilitated.
“I felt good putting my jersey on, running out with the team, going through the layup lines, it just felt normal again,” he said.
“I’m a basketball player. I love playing basketball. That’s my favorite thing to do. So to feel like I’m a part of the team and feel like I’m a part of this energy we have, feels great.”