Nets’ Kevin Durant making strong case in stacked MVP race

Kevin Durant played a game Thursday night for the first time in two weeks and nonchalantly dropped 33 points, six rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes.

Perhaps given the season he is having, it should not have been much of a surprise.

While Durant picking up where he left off before entering COVID-19 protocols on Dec. 18 wasn’t enough to lift the Nets in a 110-102 loss to the 76ers, his performance marked the latest feat in what has been an MVP-worthy season thus far.

“Overall, that’s pretty impressive after a break to play the way he did,” coach Steve Nash said. “For him, it’s still going to take him a couple games to really get back to his level. But having said that, this was pretty impressive. Just as a team, too many mistakes here and there that hampered some good performances.”

With the season nearing its halfway point — Saturday’s New Year’s Day showdown against the Clippers will mark the first-place Nets’ 34th game — Durant has put himself squarely in the MVP conversation.

Kevin Durant
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As of Friday, the 33-year-old Durant was one of the favorites for the award, which he also won in 2013-14 as a 25-year-old with the Thunder. Warriors star Stephen Curry had the best odds at +120 (6/5), per BetMGM, but Durant was next at 5/2, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo (9/1), Nikola Jokic (12/1), Joel Embiid (40/1), Luka Doncic (50/1) and Chris Paul (50/1).

It’s a stacked race — with six past MVP trophies between Durant, Curry, Antetokounmpo and Jokic — but Durant added to his case Thursday with his 14th 30-point game of the season, tied for the league lead with LeBron James. He enters Saturday averaging an NBA-high 29.9 points per game to go with 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists.

While Durant’s extended layoff between games may have inadvertently helped him get some needed rest — his 37 minutes per game are the second-most in the league — it also didn’t hurt his MVP case as much as it might for another player. He only missed three games because the Nets had three more postponed due to the toll COVID-19 took on its roster.

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Kevin Durant gets in the face of Joel Embiid.
Corey Sipkin

Still, Durant only had two days to get his legs and wind back in time for Thursday’s 37-minute effort. He was cleared from health and safety protocols on Tuesday, and because he does not have a gym in his house, he said he was not able to work out during his quarantine period.

“Once I was cleared to come back to the gym, the training staff did an incredible job with helping me ramp up, playing games, a couple workouts,” Durant said. “I feel good, but it’s definitely going to, next game, be better. The game after that will be better.”

That’s bad news for opponents of the Nets, who are finally beginning to look closer to whole again. James Harden is playing more like his old self and Kyrie Irving is nearing his debut as a part-time player.

The Nets’ Big 3 actually playing like a big three would be crucial for the team. In particular, the return of Irving should take some of the burden off Durant after a taxing start to the season, even if it might slightly hurt his individual production. Not that Durant is worried about how Irving will fit back in, despite the two only having played 24 regular-season games together with the Nets.

“I mean, have you watched him play? He’s a master,” Durant said. “He can score [on] 60, 70 percent of his shots if you don’t guard him. He’s a high-IQ player. It’s just a matter of him getting his legs under him and his wind under him. For us, we’re going to run plays for him, we’re going to try to look for him. We play team basketball. But he can adapt and do anything out there.”