OAKLAND, Calif. — The fans, many already donning Golden State No. 35 and USA No. 5 jerseys and T-shirts, began lining up more than an hour before tip-off to pose in front of the giant “Welcome To Dub Nation” sign that hangs on the freeway side of Oracle Arena, a massive reminder to Interstate-880 drivers that the Warriors indeed landed Kevin Durant in free agency earlier this month.
Durant, in his first Bay Area game since leaving the Thunder for the Warriors, wasted no time rewarding the early birds for their devotion. Just seven seconds into USA Basketball’s Tuesday night exhibition against China, Durant lined up and drained a three-pointer to open the scoring.
“Kyrie [Irving], being the great guy he is, he told me before the tip he was throwing it to me no matter what,” Durant said. “I knew I was going to pull the first shot since like yesterday. Luckily it went in.”
Durant then proceeded to score USA’s first 10 points of the game, leaking out for a dunk and suckering a Chinese defender into fouling him on a three-point shot along the way.
The game was therefore over within a matter of minutes; the greater exhibition, the season-long extravaganza, the NBA’s latest Superteam era— those are still only just beginning.
With USA rolling to another laughable blowout, smacking China 107–57 to improve to 3–0 on its pre-Olympics tour, the evening evolved into a Durant tribute from start to finish. Coach Mike Krzyzewski opted to start Durant alongside new teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and Green took the microphone at center court before the tip to introduce “KD” to the crowd and Oracle Arena saluted Durant with an extended standing ovation during player introductions.
“You wouldn’t want to be introduced after KD in line,” Krzyzewski joked. “The welcoming for Kevin was fantastic. I know he appreciated it very much.”
As the night unfolded, the crowd responded with “Warriors” chants and loud cheers for Durant, whose Thunder fell to the Warriors in a tense seven-game Western Conference finals not too long ago. Multiple fans seated in the lower level held “Welcome Home” signs for Golden State’s prized acquisition, the latest superstar straw that will almost certainly break the Western Conference’s back.
“It felt a little weird for the fans to be cheering me on like that, after being somewhere for so long and then making a change,” Durant said. “[The positive response] felt great. I appreciate all the basketball fans that enjoyed us playing. It was cool, it was different. The vibes were great. Everyone showed me major love.”
Many of his new Warriors colleagues, including back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and GM Bob Myers, were among the sell-out crowd for Durant’s sneak-peek home opener. As Durant stepped into a picture-perfect right angle three, launching and swishing as easy as could be, Curry celebrated from his courtside seat by raising three fingers on each hand.
The two MVPs then hugged and chatted about their summer schedules at halftime, with Durant joking afterward that he would provide media members with a transcript of the conversation.
“[The Warriors] know the decision I made, how stressful that time was,” Durant said. “They’re trying to make me feel comfortable. I appreciate them for that. It’s a testament to who they are as people. Being great teammates already.”
Durant finished with 13 points (on 4-of-8 shooting) and three rebounds in 19 minutes, finishing with a +22 after he posted a +37 in USA’s first win over China in Los Angeles on Sunday. After his early flurry, Durant took a backseat as DeMarcus Cousins (21 points and 11 rebounds) and Carmelo Anthony (20 points and five rebounds) helped carry USA to its third straight lopsided victory.
“Being one of the best players in the world, he’s easy to play with,” Krzyzewski said. “He has no super ego. He has such a good team ego. He’s a fantastic guy and a fantastic player. For a guy that good, he [requires] no maintenance.”
The easy victory and the twin love fests, from the crowd and from his new teammates, left Durant dreaming of a smooth transition in 2016–17.
“I don’t envision anything bad happening, or any rifts between teammates,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a transition period, but for the most part I’m going to try my best to fit in and also still play may game. I think everyone around me will try to elevate my game. It will be fun figuring things out, let’s put it that way.”
But the Warriors already mastered fun back in 2015, before they embarked on a record-setting 73-win joyride in 2016. Tuesday night’s excitement, then, amounted to a taste of basketball utopia—a hint at how glorious 2017 could be, and should be, once Durant and Curry are sharing the same court and clicking on all cylinders.