Oftentimes, it can be difficult to remember what the purpose of NBA basketball is. Teams become equally entrenched, unmoveable from their standings of respective excellence, mediocrity, and shambles. Outcomes become inevitable and staleness, especially in the regular season, sets in. Christmas Day games for the league feature match-ups ostensibly configured to provide enough bombast that the common fan forgets about this uninspiring status quo, but the games often remind us of it instead. In 2020, the holiday slate essentially kicked off the season. And, though the fresh year promises more parity and chaos than usual, we saw five blowout games that hardly made the audience feel like anything had changed.
There was a treat buried in there, though. And if you saw it, it didn’t feel so buried—it felt like Christmas itself, the thing the ornaments were made for, the reason to wake up during a global pandemic and watch grown men play a game. Back after a year-and-a-half of injury absence, Kevin Durant provided a dose of stylized dominance that was an adrenaline shot to the beleaguered fan. Basically wearing a santa suit and putting us all on his lap, the seven-footer made flotsam of Boston Celtics defenders as he led the third-quarter surge that pushed his new-look Brooklyn Nets to a lead that never slipped. Like the other four contests of the day, this one was not ultimately competitive—but it was a showcase, nonetheless, for the return of a player so outstanding that, when you are watching him, he makes everything feel just fine.
Quite a bit has been made of the career arc of Durant. For the first nine years of his career, he was the centerpiece of the most promising core in the league in Oklahoma City—one of three eventual MVPs on the roster, aside a rotating door of several elite role players. Lots of stuff happened with Durant and the Thunder, which can be found summarized in countless other places, but it definitely involved him being the unwilling anti-LeBron James protagonist, who stayed put with the small market franchise he was drafted onto instead of fleeing for glitzier palaces. When Durant stole the plausible deniability of this misconception from the sports-watching public by joining the rival, juggernaut Golden State Warriors in 2016, he became a different kind of canvas.
He was not, as a Warrior—to put it mildly—painted upon in the way he wanted to be, by those who yammer about basketball professionally or otherwise. He was cast as a villain, traitor, front-runner—he was now everything that everyone pretended he was the opposite of several years prior, when LeBron went to the Miami Heat. Durant would become the best player on the Warriors when they faced James’ Cleveland Cavaliers two years in a row; meanly squaring up for improbable threes, no matter who was guarding him, every time Cleveland got too big a sniff of more gold. It was a rather decisive display, and he earned two Finals MVP trophies, but fewer people than usual brought him into the “best player in the world” conversation, largely citing the arguably unprecedented power of Golden State’s overall ensemble.
As a result, Durant appeared to be the least satisfied two-time Finals MVP we’ve ever seen. There was a lot of unintentional, mystifying comedy in seeing a man atop the sporting world bicker with teenagers on Twitter about how much respect he deserved. Instead of enjoying his own greatness and where it had taken him, he seemed lost in the search for a more proper perception of himself; the deeper you went into it, the less funny it became. And then his last shot at proving himself with the Warriors fell apart during 12 questionably greenlit, yet dominant Finals minutes against the Toronto Raptors—Durant was injured just as he came back to definitively remind everyone why they should appreciate him much more.
And so this most recent Christmas feels like an overdue, now radically reimagined extension of that fleeting moment. With all the narrative baggage buried—though maybe not super deeply—Durant is now playing basketball in Brooklyn with a boldly visible love for it again; with enough renewed, inspiring passion that it recalls the truth that the purpose of basketball, like the purpose of anything, can clarify itself the instant we see someone doing it just so. Everyone with a rightly fixed heart simply loves to see it. “The medicine man,” as ESPN’s Mark Jones termed him during the Christmas broadcast, is here to re-inject hearts on his sweet journey back to the top of the game. Durant doesn’t seem, at least for now, as torridly bent on being seen in a specific way, and watching him in this moment is a cosmically fun fan-mission in reclaiming lost time. Both old and new and certainly lovely, his own bespoke dimension of the basketball-verse promises to be one of the premier places to visit all season long.