Kevin Durant (304008)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

Kevin Durant returned to the Nets’ lineup on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns at the Barclays Center after missing three games recovering from a thigh bruise. Durant appeared to be in playoff form, scoring 33 points in just 28 minutes coming off the bench in the Nets’ 128-119 win. His presence on the floor is welcomed help for Kyrie Irving, who has had to carry the bulk of the Nets’ offensive load while Durant healed and James Harden continues to sit out with a right hamstring strain.

Harden has not played since exiting the Nets’ April 5 game against the Knicks four minutes into the first quarter. When the Nets face the Indiana Pacers tonight, April 29, on the road, it will be the 12th straight game Harden has been inactive. It’s possible Harden won’t be back until the start of the postseason; he suffered a setback last week during the rehab process.

“Back to square one,”said Nets head coach Steve Nash last Tuesday. “We’ll rehabilitate him and get him back whenever we can—and who knows when that will be. We’ll support James and our performance team in getting him back in as best condition as possible.” The trio of Durant, Irving and Harden have only played in seven games together since Harden was acquired in a trade with the Houston Rockets this past January.

Yet their rotating absences haven’t been an impediment to the Nets becoming by the eye-test and standings the best team in the Eastern Conference. When they played the Toronto Raptors in Tampa, Florida—the Raptors’ home games have been held in Tampa this season as a result of Canada’s COVID restrictions—the Nets were 41-20, the best record in the East by a half-game over the 40-21 Philadelphia 76ers. The Milwaukee Bucks were third at 37-23 while the shockingly good Knicks were the No. 4 seed with a record of 34-28.

Durant’s return is timely. Prior to meeting the Raptors, he (36), Irving (16) and Harden (14) had been out for combined 66 of the Nets’ games. Tonight will make 15 for Harden since he made his Nets debut Jan. 16. Of the three, Durant is arguably their most indispensable piece. He showed why in shooting an easy 12-21 versus the Suns, including going 2-3 from the three-point line.

“It was a good start,” said Durant. “Hopefully, I’ll build on this game and keep going.”

Given his recent injury history, Nash is no doubt going to manage the 32-year-old, 11-time All-Star smartly. “Kevin has shown his scoring doesn’t seem to get affected by a long layoff, whether it was coming off the Achilles or coming off the hamstring,” said Nash after the game. “He seems to come right back, and his rhythm and timing are excellent. It’s very impressive, for sure.”

After taking on the Indiana Pacers on the road tonight, the Nets will host the Portland Trailblazers in Brooklyn before going on a five-game road trip. It starts with two in Milwaukee versus the Bucks on Sunday and Tuesday, then a date with the Dallas Mavericks next Thursday, a matchup with the Denver Nuggets May 8, and the 10-day finale in Chicago on May 11 challenging the Bulls.