The beginning of the miraculous turnaround will need to wait for another day.
Kevin Durant made his highly anticipated season debut on Tuesday and while he showed flashes of his MVP form (mixed in with some off-kilter moments and missed opportunities) his return wasn't enough to prevent the Thunder from falling further in the Western Conference standings. The 2014 MVP finished with a team-high 27 points (on 9-for-18 shooting) but he committed five turnovers as Oklahoma City lost to New Orleans 112-104 on the road. That defeat, coupled with a Phoenix victory over Indiana, dropped Durant and company to 5 1/2 games out of the playoff picture.
That's hardly an insurmountable mountain, with more than three-quarters of the season left to play, but Durant's uneven return served as a reminder that anticipating an All-NBA level impact immediately after six weeks off due to a foot injury was expecting too much.
For starters, the 26-year-old Durant, who has averaged 38-plus minutes per game in each of his last six seasons, played just 30 minutes against the Pelicans. He made the most of his time — coming out firing on his first touch and scoring the Thunder's final basket — but his ability to take over a game was crimped in those limited minutes. Thunder coach Scott Brooks really has no choice here: He must play it safe with both Durant and Russell Westbrook, who recently missed time due to a broken hand, because another extended absence from either of his All-Stars could prove fatal to Oklahoma City's postseason hopes.
Practically, though, there is a short-term cost to the caution: By the time Durant reentered the game with a little more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City faced an 11-point deficit and New Orleans was riding significant offensive momentum. A fully healthy and sharp Durant has shown himself to be capable of salvaging this type of situation many times in the past; as is, Durant and Westbrook were unable to get closer than eight points and the tension never seriously mounted down the stretch.
Even if he was unable to play instant hero, Durant did have a number of moments that reminded everyone why he has been regarded as the game's second-best talent for a number of years. He opened his scoring by swishing a soft-touch three-pointer, curled into a pretty catch-and-shoot jumper shortly thereafter and he reverse pivoted into a pretty fall-away jumper midway through the second quarter. Years of careful skill-building didn't desert him during his injury absence. Durant did get up for one dunk in semi-transition, but it was a mostly routine affair.
The most reassuring moment came late in the fourth quarter, as Durant salvaged a bit of a broken possession by driving hard to his left past Tyreke Evans before rattling in a leaning shot in the paint. The sequence showed off Durant's desire for the ball, his burst, his assertiveness, his scoring instincts and his creative finishing ability. Perhaps some of the reassuring feeling was caused by the fact that the basket came shortly after both Durant and Westbrook misfired on three-pointers that could have pulled the Thunder back into the game.
His turnovers were generally attributable to timing. Early, he threw a pass out of the post a second or two behind a cutting Serge Ibaka. In the second quarter, he waited an extra beat as he navigated a high screen-and-roll, drawing a carrying call. After halftime, he twice lost his handle while in attack mode, and he was also whistled for a foul call late when he made contact with a jump-shooting Ryan Anderson. Most of Tuesday's miscues should be cleaned up sooner rather than later.
More important than any particular highlight or lowlight: Durant showed no obvious ill effects of the foot injury. He moved comfortably around the court on offense and wasn't particularly hesitant in one-on-one situations. He backed defenders down from the elbow, slashed through the lane and earned seven trips to the free-throw line. He wasn't necessarily his old self physically. He didn't seem to have his top-end speed, his usually precise timing on his dribble moves was sometimes off and he never really had the chance to show his full leaping abilityut Durant also didn't look hobbled.
But moving without laboring isn't necessarily the same thing as finding a good flow. Durant never quite found his smooth fit within Oklahoma City's five-man groups, in part because Westbrook (21 points on 6-of-20 shooting and seven turnovers) struggled through a tough night. There just wasn't an overwhelming amount of interplay between the two stars. Their best moment came with roughly three minutes left in the game, when Westbrook found Durant on a pop-out three-point look that we've seen approximately two million times over the last five years.
Even if Tuesday's loss dug Oklahoma City's hole one game deeper, the Thunder are in a fine spot now that Durant and Westbrook are back on the court. Even if their two-man chemistry takes a few weeks to get right, their sheer talent should be sufficient to start lifting the team's winning percentage in the near future. As it stands, Phoenix is on pace to win 47 games, meaning that Oklahoma City must go 43-21 (.671) the rest of the way to hit 48 wins. That sounds like a tall order, but the Thunder have hit that mark in each of the past four seasons and their strength of schedule, to date, has been more difficult than average. In other words, Durant returns to the court knowing that a relatively quick return to normalcy, or something close, should be enough to get Oklahoma City into the postseason. That should remain a comforting thought, even in defeat.