For the first time this season, there was no mistaking the look in Kevin Durant’s eyes before tipoff. It was fierce and edgy and piercing, a window into his mind.
So Durant came out and played perhaps his most focused effort this season, and surely his most purposeful, hitching his teammates to his intensity and carrying the Warriors to a tip-to-buzzer 101-87 triumph over the Charlotte Hornets.
Durant’s salient numbers: 35 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and two blocks.
His intangible presence: profound and massive.
No question the Warriors needed Durant’s numbers and presence with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green unavailable from the start and Zaza Pachulia leaving less than five minutes into the game with an injury.
“What a luxury, to just be able to just throw him the ball with Steph and Draymond out, and Zaza as well,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters at Spectrum Center in Charlotte. “KD took over, but as a team we did a nice job of defending and getting us off to a good start.”
Durant led, yes, but he did so as much psychologically as physically. His will to win was practically palpable. This was the KD so visible so often last season, his first with the Warriors, when he was clearly the team’s best player.
For as good as he has been through the first seven weeks of this season, that KD has been absent with alarming regularity. He was seemed, on many occasions, unfocused and somewhat distracted.
Not on Wednesday. Durant was aggressive with his shot, taking a season-high 28. He was assertive with his playmaking, zipping passes to open teammates. And he was ferocious on the glass, fully recognizing that he was the only frontcourt starter available.
“It’s fun when you get to create and just be creative out there, whether it’s passing to JaVale (McGee) or a lob or shooting a pull-up jump shot, just all the stuff that you work on in those situations,” Durant said.
“Tonight it felt like I could go in my bag of tools, my bag of tricks, to pull some stuff out. I don’t expect it to be like that every single game, but tonight I thought it called for it and we set the tone early and after that I didn’t have to handle the ball as much on the floor.”
Durant was ready from the jump, producing 16 points, four rebounds, one assist and one block in the first quarter. He backed the Hornets into a corner from which they never really emerged.
“It was not really scripted, it was more of naturally how things were going to go with Steph Curry and Draymond out and Andre (Iguodala) coming off the bench,” Kerr said. “KD is naturally going to get the ball. I just liked his pace and his energy. He was attacking from the start which was great.”
There was a distinct energy to most everything Durant did, as if he were channeling Green. There was an overt toughness in the paint, filling the Zaza vacuum. The scoring, well, that was for Curry.
This is how Durant came away with his first triple-double of the season.
“When Zaza went out, that was tough to see, especially with Draymond and Steph out and then to have another starter out,” Durant said. “Everybody just rallied around it from the coaches to the players to the trainers, everybody it felt like.”
Thompson and Iguodala were excellent. Quinn Cook, starting at point guard in place of Curry, was steady. Nick Young provided a scoring boost off the bench.
Yet Durant was spectacular in ways he had not been this season.
This is not to say Durant is better without Curry. That’s nonsense on myriad levels, particularly after their fruitful coexistence last season, which ended with Durant being named the MVP of the NBA Finals.
For the Warriors to be at their best, Curry and Durant need each other.
Yet either is capable of providing what the Warriors need when the other is not available. We saw Curry do it last season and we saw Durant do it Wednesday night.