Kevin Durant says the quality of his Brooklyn Nets teammates promises him a "smooth ride" in his return from an 18-month NBA absence in the wake of a devastating torn Achilles tendon.
The return of one of the NBA's most formidable scoring threats, the league Most Valuable Player in 2014 and a two-time NBA Finals MVP with the Golden State Warriors -- has sparked excitement among fans and pundits eager to see Durant at top form and curious as to how he will mesh with star teammate Kyrie Irving.
They won't have to wait long for a first look, with the Nets hosting the Warriors in the first game of the season on Tuesday.
Durant insists the clash is no grudge match, calling it "just a regular game."
In this year's abbreviated pre-season -- shortened as the league returns to action barely two months after the Lakers capped the pandemic-disrupted 2019-20 campaign with a 17th championship -- Durant has offered tantalizing glimpses of his old form.
But the 10-time All-Star said after a 25-point performance in a pre-season victory over the Boston Celtics that he expects to continue to improve.
"I was out for 18 months not playing an NBA game, not playing against that physicality, the speed of the game," Durant said. "So it's going to take me some time to get my feet up under me, get my legs right.
“Having a team like we have, those guys support me every time I step on the floor, try to put me in great positions to be successful, and we're just playing off of each other,” Durant said. "So if we continue to do that, this will be a smooth ride for me as I get back into the swing of things."
Durant was injured in game five of the 2019 NBA Finals, opted for free agency and signed a four-year deal with the Nets not long after having surgery.
He watched the Nets from the bench throughout last season, their fortunes faltering further after a right shoulder injury ruled Irving out for the second half of the season.
New Nets coach Steve Nash, a two-time NBA MVP embarking on his first season as a head coach, said he'll be keeping a close eye on both as the season unfolds.
"There's been such a layoff for both of them," Nash said during training camp. "In particular, Kevin coming off one of the toughest injuries to deal with as a basketball player.
"We have to be careful with him and his adaptation process back into the game."
But Durant, 32, said the toll of a dozen NBA seasons is likely affecting him more now than the injury.
"Even if I didn't have an Achilles I probably wouldn't be 100%, you know," he said during training camp. "So the wear and tear over time, I guess, but I feel solid."
Durant has returned from significant injury before.
After earning MVP honors in 2013-14, when he averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant played in just 27 games during the 2014-15 campaign because of a foot injury.
He had surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot in October of 2014 and missed the first 17 games of the season.
He made his season debut that December, but in February underwent season-ending surgery to address pain his foot.
Durant came back strong in 2015-16, averaging 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his last season in Oklahoma City.
- It'll come naturally -
He signed in 2016 with the Warriors, departing a partnership with Thunder star Russell Westbrook to join a Western Conference juggernaut and play alongside Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
Durant's tenure at Golden State included a scattering of injuries and two titles.
They were seeking a third straight championship in 2019 when Durant suffered a calf injury in the second round of the playoffs and missed nine games -- coming back for game five of the finals against the Toronto Raptors.
It's been a long time since then, but Durant said this month that he will try to let his return unfold with out undue angst.
"I definitely used to have crazy anxiety wondering how I was going to play the next day or the next series and it used to drive me crazy, you know what I’m saying?" Durant said.
"With my mental health, I guess, it's easier for me to have this approach just to wait and see what happens and then falling back on the work that I've put in.
"If I fall back on that work, I won't have to worry too much about what will happen. I already know it'll come naturally."