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No slips: Kevin Durant crushes pregame uneasiness, comes alive in second half of home debut

The Suns’ star finally got on the floor at Footprint Center

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — It was hard for Kevin Durant to stop thinking about his first home game with the Phoenix Suns.

The team’s newest star told teammates he had a hard time sleeping ahead of the game, a much-anticipated one for Durant, Suns fans and pretty much anyone else invested in the team given Durant’s magnitude as a player. The tough part – unfair or not – is there was uncertainty around such an exciting moment.

Three weeks ago, Durant was expected to make his home debut with the Suns against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Children were observed yelling, “KD” from open seating in the lower part of the arena while Durant went through a warmup routine that included his patented mid-range jumper and other moves, a joyful sight for Suns fans. But the air left the building once Durant, a slim player who is listed at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, dribbled toward the basket, slipped and sprained his left ankle.

Durant was ruled out of the game and his debut was postponed. Wednesday was another opportunity for it to happen, but it made sense to be concerned about another setback.

This time, there was no problem. Durant ran out from a side tunnel inside Footprint Center and immediately attacked warmups. He worked on strength and balance for each of his ankles with a Suns personnel member and moved on to stationary jump shots, pull-ups and more jumpers with assistant coach Jarrett Jack.

No slips occurred, and Durant threw down an imperative two-handed lob dunk that put an end to uneasiness ahead of his second chance to play at home with the Suns, an eventual 107-100 win for them over the Minnesota Timberwolves in front of an announced 63rd consecutive sellout with 17,071 fans. Durant was back.

“I know everybody was anticipating it (his home debut) and waiting on it since the last time I stepped on the floor for warmups,” Durant said. “So I’m glad we was able to do it again and get through it and move on from here.”

Durant was the first player announced in Phoenix’s starting five and was expectedly greeted by a roaring ovation from Suns fans. Shocked by Durant’s sudden removal from the lineup three weeks ago, they finally got a chance to see the team’s newest star in action.

The start was not pretty. Durant was targeted on the Suns’ first offensive possession and received a switch on to the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, but he was off-balance and shot a fadeaway that barely hit the left side of the rim.

That was an indicator of how the first half went for Durant. The Suns’ forward missed each of his first six shots, which is perceived to be very uncommon in his career (we tried to find out how often it has happened but could not do so in our research).

Durant finally got to the free-throw line with 6:32 left in the second quarter and made his first attempt, which the Suns’ crowd responded to emphatically. Soon after, Durant hit a turnaround shot over Minnesota forward Jaden McDaniels for his first home basket.

That was the shot that catapulted Durant to a much better second half. He switched shoes at halftime and scored 13 points in the last two periods, which included two key 3-pointers at the start of the fourth quarter.

Durant, who was on a minutes restriction that was not further specified, finished with 16 points – third-most on the Suns behind shooting guard Devin Booker (29 points) and point guard Chris Paul (19 points) – eight rebounds and four assists. He made five of his final 12 shots after he missed his first six.

“It’s frustrating, but I’ve been in this position before and had slow starts before,” Durant said. “So I just tried to figure it out, I think. A couple of those shots though, I definitely were rushing, trying to get it back all at once. Sometimes, I can get in my own way sometimes, thinking too much and trying to get those shots back. But tried to settle in as much as I can, my teammates looked for me.”

Durant said after the game in moments like this, “you can want it too bad” and then be “uncharacteristic.” It was encouraging for him and his team to find a rhythm as the game went on.

“I think the way he stayed with it, when he hit the three in the (fourth) quarter, like, that’s Kevin,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s not going to run from those types of shots. And I thought he battled on both ends.

“I think his cardio has got to get back to the level where he wants it. Once he gets that, you’ll see the Kevin that we all know.”

Durant also spoke about his acclimation to the defensive end and the importance of playing with energy there.

“I think I can provide some versatility to the group and rebounding as well,” Durant said. “We’re all on the same page. We had a few mistakes, but that happens in a game. But I think for the most part, we were on the same page. To hold this team to 100 points, I think they won four or five in a row (it was four), that’s pretty good for us.”

Phoenix has now won all four of its games in which Durant has played. It is impressive even though it has been a small sample size, and it is encouraging the Suns are on a three-game winning streak as they work to keep the No. 4 seed amid a loaded Western Conference.

Durant is back, and there were no scares or unfortunate moments. The home debut is behind him. Now, it’s on to the next steps.

“I’m glad I’m back, I’m glad I’m into the zone of playing again and being around the guys and being one of the guys again,” Durant said. “So just keep building from here.”

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