The greatest player ever to pull on a Nets jersey made his Brooklyn debut Tuesday night, and the excitement was … not palpable.
The arena did not roar, rumble or crackle with energy. The roof was not raised. It stayed right where it was.
This was not Kevin Durant’s fault, of course. He did everything a superstar is supposed to do to—swishing a straightaway 3 on his first shot, nailing an array of slinky jumpers, flying for a right-handed jam on the break, and leading the Nets to a breezy 125–99 rout of the Golden State Warriors.
The performance was electrifying. The atmosphere? Just weird.
The crowd noise was prerecorded and pumped through the PA system. Live applause came only from players, coaches and 60 essential workers who were invited as honored guests. There were maybe 150 people in an arena bowl made to hold 17,739.
So it went on opening night of the 2020–21 NBA season, the first to tip off amid a global pandemic. There will be no fans in most NBA arenas for the foreseeable future, no one to scream, stomp, chant, shriek, boo, howl or exult.
And on this night in Brooklyn, no one to celebrate the most celebrated free-agent signing in franchise history, who made his long-awaited debut after an 18-month recovery from Achilles surgery.
Here was Durant, the former MVP, playing his first official game since the 2019 Finals, facing the team he led to two championships, flanked by his friend and co-star Kyrie Irving, leading a Nets team with legit title hopes, and one could only imagine the happy pandemonium that would have engulfed Barclays Center in any other year.
“I’m sure with fans it would have been a crazy atmosphere, especially KD playing against his old team,” Nets guard Caris LeVert said, smiling broadly. “But I felt like we came out, we handled business and even though we didn’t have fans, we created our own energy tonight.”
Even the NBA’s bubble games in Orlando, also played without fans, were not quite this surreal. Those games were played in small, intimate gymnasiums, with virtual fans beamed onto courtside monitors. Now every team is back in its own full-sized arena, and the absence of bodies and voices and dance teams and kiss-cams is glaring.
This will all take some getting used to.
Yet if Tuesday’s game was any indication, the Nets will need very little time acclimating to each other, or to the soaring expectations that come with having Durant and Irving on board. The Nets dropped 40 points on the Warriors in the first quarter (10 from Durant, 17 from Irving), built a lead as high as 38 points and generally cruised through the evening, delivering the first career victory to new coach Steve Nash.
Durant put up 22 points in just 25 minutes of work, sitting the final 15 minutes of a game that never was competitive. Irving put up 26 points, on incredibly efficient shooting (10 of 16), and also earned the fourth quarter off.
There’s a long way to go yet, and the Warriors team that arrived here bore little resemblance to the one Durant ditched in July 2019, but this sort of dominant play is surely what Durant and Irving had in mind when they decided to join forces all those months ago.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Irving said. “And I’m grateful that we could let our games do the talking. But I’m also grateful that we can have relationships here that matter off the court, that help us on the court.”
He meant his friendship with Durant, of course, but also his growing bonds with this Nets team, which had a bumpy first year with this duo under contract—Durant rehabbing throughout last season, and Irving limited to 20 games due to injuries, all ending with a patchwork Nets team losing to Toronto in a four-game sweep in first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve just gone through some challenging times,” Irving said, “And we’re able to put on this uniform as a team together, while understanding that the more we stay collective as a group, the better off we'll be in the long run. We don’t want to let anything disrupt what we’ve got going on here or what our goals are. It’s simple—it’s a championship. So we gotta enjoy this regular season, but we’re just gonna enjoy every step of the journey, as well.”
To a man, the Nets are speaking more about the process than the goal, though that part is fairly well understood. Durant and Irving have both won titles elsewhere and have an acute understanding of the growth required over a season. Nash never made the Finals in his Hall of Fame career, but he’s preaching patience, too, especially as it regards Durant, given his long recovery and the seriousness of the Achilles injury.
“He looks like Kevin, he plays like Kevin, but I don’t want to start making expectations of him until he gets going and gets some games and some rhythm, under his belt,” Nash said. “I just don’t want to necessarily expect that every night is gonna be amazing. His off nights are amazing for most people in the league. But he needs time to adapt still.”
On talent alone, the Nets project the image of a contender. They have the requisite All-Stars, plus the core of an overachieving team that made the playoffs before those stars arrived—including two players, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, who flirted with All-Star consideration in recent years. There are caveats—about Durant’s durability, about Irving’s injury history, about chemistry and new roles and a rookie head coach—but this team’s upside is indisputable.
Crowd or no crowd, Tuesday night ranked among the most consequential in Nets history, of any era—Brooklyn, New Jersey or Long Island. Durant and Irving are the best duo the franchise has ever had, and represent the best chances for a championship since Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin were flying up and down the court 18 years ago.
“It’s probably the most anticipated debut since the KG–Paul Pierce combo,” longtime Nets announcer Ian Eagle said in a phone interview before the game, referring to the 2013–14 squad that featured former Celtics Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who were acquired by trade.
But the Pierce-Garnett experiment lasted just one season and ended in a second-round flop against the Miami Heat.
“The biggest difference, though, is they did not choose to be in Brooklyn; Durant and Kyrie did,” Eagle said. “That’s a huge distinction, the idea that they are now a destination in the NBA. That had never been the case before. Jason Kidd was traded to the Nets. Vince Carter was traded to the Nets. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, traded to the Nets.”
The franchise has seen other all-time greats come through—notably, Julius Erving, Drazen Petrovic and Bernard King—but no one with Durant’s sheer talent and resume. He could be called the greatest player to wear the Nets jersey after one game, but to be the greatest Net will require a little more.
“If this is the first step to a championship, he has a chance to be No. 1,” Eagle said.
None of that was on Durant’s mind Tuesday, as he bounded onto the court for tipoff, though he was surely aware of the anticipation surrounding him.
“I know there’s a lot of emotions,” Durant said afterward, alluding to a flood of “calls and texts about playing again.” But he kept his focus squarely on the game, and “try not to make too big of a deal out of this whole thing.”
In that way, the empty arena suited Durant’s low-key attitude toward all the anticipatory hype.
Still, the game-ops staff did its best to simulate a normal, fan-tailored, atmosphere. The Warriors were still introduced to the Imperial March (aka, the Darth Vader theme). PA man Olivier Sedra still growled out the starters’ names during introductions and bellowed, “BROOKLYN! Are you ready?!”
During a timeout, NBA legend Grant Hill appeared on the video scoreboard, urging fans to be respectful to one another—though there were few actual fans in the building, and they were all spaced many, many feet apart.
Among those in attendance were 60 were essential workers—medical personnel, nursing-home attendants, MTA employees, sanitation workers and others—invited as honored guests. Before tipoff, the Nets raised a black banner reading, “NYC Essential Workers 2020” into the rafters, a permanent tribute to this uniquely difficult year, and those who helped get us through it.
The next banner is up to Kevin Durant.