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Inside the divergent and yet forever connected paths of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving

Inside the divergent and yet forever connected paths of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving

KYRIE IRVING WAS so ready to talk about the great basketball he had just played, pushing all the drama from his Brooklyn Nets tenure into the distance.

It was Feb. 8, and Irving had just dazzled in his Dallas Mavericks debut and strolled into the media room to review his 24-point showing in a quality road win against the LA Clippers.

He had dominated headlines for the previous week, beginning with a trade request the Nets quickly granted. It led to a blockbuster deal that severed his partnership with Kevin Durant and placed him alongside Luka Doncic as the NBA’s new gravitational star hub.

But when Irving walked into an overflowing media crowd, the other size-18 shoe dropped. News broke after that the Nets had turned the final page on their unsuccessful superteam era by agreeing to an even bigger blockbuster deal; Durant was headed to the Phoenix Suns to form an even bigger superteam with Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

Irving hadn’t even settled into his seat when a reporter blurted out the question, asking if Irving had heard his good friend and former teammate had been traded to a Western Conference rival.

“I’m happy we got the win tonight,” Irving responded as he pulled the microphone off its stand, smiling wryly while fidgeting with his bucket hat. “Can we start with our team first?”

No, not really, because Durant and Irving will be linked forever to some degree, including what they failed to do together and what they will do after their breakup. And what they’ve been doing for the past month as they prepare for their paths to cross again in vastly different circumstances Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC) when the West’s fourth-place Suns (35-29) and Mavs (33-31, sixth in the West) meet in Dallas.

AS IRVING FLIPPED in a reverse layup, Doncic broke into laughter. Doncic stood near half court during the final possession of the first half in the Mavs’ Feb. 23 win against the San Antonio Spurs and thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the brilliance of his new co-star, who Doncic considers “probably the best ball handler ever in the game.”

In this instance, Irving danced with the ball on the right wing, dribbling behind his back and between his legs while surveying the Spurs’ defense. As soon as he saw a double-team coming, Irving darted by his primary defender toward the baseline, pranced past another help defender in the lane and softly laid the ball off the glass on the other side of the basket, all of which caused Doncic to crack up as he walked toward the locker room.

“It was insane,” Doncic said, shaking his head after their first victory as a duo. “There was like three or four people on him and he still got an open layup. That’s why I was laughing. It was insane.”

Doncic, along with coach Jason Kidd, had been a driving force in the Mavs trading for Irving. Doncic, a three-time All-NBA selection who turned 24 on Feb. 28, had grown frustrated the Mavs were floating around .500 despite him playing better than ever, and team and league sources said he privately had been pushing the front office to find a way to acquire the co-star required for the Mavs to have any chance to contend for a championship.

Considering the lack of favorable trade assets for the Mavs, who owe this year’s top-10 protected pick to the New York Knicks as the last payment for the swing-and-miss Kristaps Porzingis deal, the odds were stacked against Dallas making a significant upgrade this season. That changed when Irving asked out of Brooklyn, as his turbulent track record and expiring contract limited his value in the trade market.

“I don’t see the risk involved,” Mavs general manager Nico Harrison, a former Nike executive whose relationship with the point guard dates back a decade and a half, said during Irving’s introductory news conference on Feb. 13.

“I actually see the risk in not doing the deal.”

The possibility Irving, who is set to become a free agent after this season, is an expensive rental for the Mavs — coming at the cost of starters Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie, plus an unprotected 2029 first-round pick — was understood when the they agreed to the deal. After LeBron James publicly lobbied for a reunion with Irving, his title teammate with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers now loom as an intriguing offseason option for the perennial All-Star guard.

“We get a few months and some playoff games to really see how this thing works,” Harrison said. “Then once we see how it works, we see, OK, how do we make the future really good?”

After joining the team in L.A. during the road trip, Irving vowed not to be distracted by the “ruthless” business aspect of his situation, stressing that, “I just want to be all-in on what we got going on.”

A week later, meeting with the local media for the first time before his Dallas home debut, Irving politely asked that reporters don’t “put unwarranted distractions on us and our team” by continuing to inquire about his pending free agency decision.

That request has been respected, even after Irving and James smiled and hugged at midcourt immediately after the Mavs’ meltdown on Feb. 26, when the Lakers pulled off what was then the biggest comeback of the NBA season by rallying from a 27-point deficit to win in Dallas.

Kidd’s eyebrow-raising postgame news conference after the loss to the Lakers, when he made a point to call out the Mavs for being “distracted by the whistle” in comments that were clearly intended for Doncic, took attention away from the trend of Dallas struggling in the clutch with its star duo.

The Mavs are 2-4 when Doncic and Irving play together, with all four losses coming in games decided in the final seconds. There has been some awkwardness as they work through playing together in clutch situations, epitomized by the last-second turnover committed by Irving in the Feb. 13 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves after passing the ball back and forth with Doncic a few times, perhaps a case of too much mutual respect with both superstars deferring to the other.

There hasn’t been any friction or ego clashes thus far. When Irving missed a step-back 3 at the buzzer of Tuesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers, Doncic approached Irving on the floor, hugged him and emphasized it was a good look.

“We trust him,” Doncic said.

“A lot of people like to make a bit of an emphasis on how many games we’ve lost, but for us right now, we’re just focused on putting one foot in front of the other,” Irving said that night. “When we’re out there playing together, it’s not going to look perfect all the time. But when we’re aggressive and we’re making quick moves and being decisive, our offense flourishes.”

The Mavs have indeed been as spectacular offensively as anticipated with Doncic and Irving sharing the ball. Dallas has scored 129.2 points per 100 possessions during the All-Stars’ 162 minutes together, the best of any pairing in the league with at least 150 minutes this season.

“For me, it’s way easier,” Doncic said after Thursday’s 133-126 win against the Philadelphia 76ers, when he and Irving became the first duo in franchise history to each score at least 40 points in a game. “It’s unbelievable some of the things he does on the court. Some movements I’ve never seen in my life. I think if I [had] to pay to watch somebody, it would be him for sure, because those movements and shots are incredible.”

Kidd has half-joked that the new-look Mavs are “here to outscore people,” but he’s telling a lot of truth in jest. Dallas ranks in the bottom five in defensive rating (115.5) and had to give up its best defender, Finney-Smith, in the Irving deal. So the standard for the Mavs’ offense, to provide any real hope of a playoff run, is historically high.

“He fit in the day of the trade. He fits right in with what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s to win a championship. He has the résumé to help us do that.”

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, on Kyrie Irving

Doncic and Irving are such talented shot creators that Dallas can be dangerous offensively even if they’re essentially taking turns. Doncic leads the NBA in isolation scoring with 451 points, averaging 1.14 per possession, which ranks sixth among 41 players with at least 100 possessions, according to Synergy tracking data. Irving has been the league’s most efficient isolation scorer (1.28 points per possession) and ranks ninth in isolation points (247).

They’re getting a feel for how to create synergy and enhance each other’s ample skill sets, a process Irving said typically occurs during the preseason, not while fighting for playoff seeding in March. And Irving acknowledged he feels the pressure created by those circumstances.

“I mean, it’s natural. It comes with it,” Irving said after the loss to the Pacers. “And also, as a human being, I just naturally want to fit in with everybody and not step on anyone’s toes. But the magnitude of the moments sometimes warrants special people to go up and beyond and do the extra things.

“I’m at that place now, but I think I just need to scale back and let the game come to me and flow into it, because when we’re playing that tense, I can feel the intensity around me. “

Two nights later, in the win against the Sixers, Doncic and Irving looked like one of the most lethal tandems the league has seen, combining for 82 points and 18 assists. Eight of Doncic’s 12 assists went to Irving, including his first six, coming off a mixture of sets designed to get Irving shots and random plays in the flow of the game. And Doncic didn’t sacrifice his scoring aggressiveness to get Irving involved, scoring 17 of his 42 points in the first quarter.

Doncic has readily accepted the challenge of adapting to playing with another superstar, particularly playing off the ball much more than he has throughout his career. The Mavs simply want Irving, who is accustomed to being part of a star pairing, to play the way he has while earning eight career All-Star appearances.

“He fit in the day of the trade,” Kidd said. “He fits right in with what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s to win a championship. He has the résumé to help us do that.”

DEANDRE AYTON PULLED into the parking lot at the Suns’ practice facility thinking he was getting there a little early, as he wanted to spend extra time around his new teammate. But when he got into the locker room, he learned Durant had been there for several hours.

“I’m going to have to pull up two hours earlier, I thought I was coming in here and doing my thing but no. [Durant’s] in here, already finished his work and is ready for practice,” Ayton said. “He’s about his business. There’s less smiles around here, we’re all about business right now.”

The Suns are a serious team. Any team led by Paul and Booker, two business-first professionals, is going to be this way. Same for coach Monty Williams, who was schooled under Spurs great Gregg Popovich, and Suns team president James Jones, who learned to set the culture from Miami Heat president Pat Riley. Phoenix didn’t win 64 games last season by loafing.

But in Durant’s first days as a Sun, even when he was still in rehab mode from an MCL sprain in his right knee, the mood within the team turned to a mix of excitement and anticipation.

The only Sun invited to All-Star Weekend was Durant, who missed the game because of injury. He flew to Salt Lake City and fulfilled some commitments, but by that Monday, Durant and most of the team were back in the gym.

For three days, Durant and Booker worked together before their first official practice. They played 1-on-1, just like they did in Japan during the Olympics in 2021 when their relationship was fostered.

There were many conversations between Durant and Williams. They talked about games they played against each other in the past, Williams reliving a game from eight years ago when he was coaching the New Orleans Pelicans and star Anthony Davis made a game winner over Durant when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But most of their discussion centered on strategy. Williams wanted to know about Durant’s comfort level in various assignments on the defensive end, as the Suns weren’t used to having a near 7-foot shot-blocker who plays a wing position. He wanted to know what plays Durant liked to have called near the end of games and what tendencies he was used to seeing from the better defensive teams and the best defenders.

“You just spend a lot of time asking questions, and then sometimes that sparks a conversation where he’s talking and I’m listening and I pick up something,” Williams said. “Communication is so important in any setting but especially when you bring someone like Kevin in.”

This crash course is unusual for everyone. This is the first time in Durant’s career that he has been traded midseason and it has been a wild series of events. The Suns, too, as they’ve morphed into a contender over the past few years, have been cautious in making big changes on the fly.

For Durant, it had been a whirlwind. He was caught off guard by Irving’s trade demand and hadn’t expected, just a day after the Nets traded Irving, that he’d be going to meet with Nets general manager Sean Marks and asking for his own trade again, this after requesting a trade last June.

As he was getting settled and the Suns were dealing with the fallout of trading away the bulk of their core, there was a fortunate break: Phoenix only played two games over a 13-day span, including the All-Star break. Plus a 16-day stretch between road games. This valuable time turned into chemistry building for Durant and an attempt to reestablish normalcy.

“Everything happened so fast,” Durant said. “But the game is the constant thing and I just try to keep — to stick with that. I was going to the facility every day, so it felt like home regardless of me just getting there. So the basketball, just the energy around the game just kept it normal for me.”

The Suns’ first practice after the All-Star break lasted nearly three hours, unheard of in the middle of a season. So was this: the Suns hired referees to come in and officiate a scrimmage, a tactic typically only employed in training camp.

But that is sort of what the Suns were doing.

Durant and the Suns’ training staff, who picked up information of his rehab on the fly, wanted to go slow. Within a week or so of him getting to Phoenix, Durant’s knee was pain-free, but there was a well thought-out plan of how to ramp Durant back up. And which game to choose?

Not the first game back from All-Star, a Friday night home game against the Thunder. And no, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to play for the first time in seven weeks in Milwaukee against the league’s hottest team on a Sunday afternoon high-intensity affair.

But a midweek game in Charlotte, where the Hornets have one of the league’s worst records and the 22nd-ranked defense, felt better.

Monday afternoon, even on a scheduled off day, when the team bus pulled up to the Spectrum Center so the Suns’ young players and guys out of the rotation could get some conditioning and maintenance work, Durant hopped off and went in for extra shooting.

Tuesday was another long practice for Durant and the Suns in Charlotte, another off day allowing for preparation and tuning. That night, he went to a Charlotte high school game to see Sir Mohammed, the son of his former Thunder teammate Nazr Mohammed, play in the state playoffs.

As Durant waited to take the floor Wednesday night, he felt nervous. He was wearing No. 35 again for the first time since the 2019 Finals — he’d worn No. 7 for his years in Brooklyn — and it felt different and the same all at once. The Suns had done everything to make him comfortable, including abandoning the game-day road shootaround as Durant sometimes prefers.

“I always feel I got to prove myself to my teammates and my coaches every single day no matter what I’ve done in the league,” Durant said. “So I feel like there’s pressure to be who I am every day and I put that on me internally.”

But the plan worked, despite Durant shaking off the rust on his first shot. “I think I shot that just to shoot to be honest, because I hadn’t in a while,” he said.

Almost everything else went smoothly. He scored 23 points in 27 minutes on 10-of-15 shooting but was preposterously hard on himself for the few misses. “Four of them I should’ve made,” he said.

“Kev is somebody that I have high respect for, and this is one of those moments that doesn’t really feel real,” Booker said after he scored 37 points in the 14-point win against Charlotte.

“Every time he shoots the ball, it’s just so effortless, you can see defenders trying their hardest to contest or fight over a screen and he just looks unbothered, unfazed.”

Durant rejected Hornets center Mark Williams twice in the first quarter and threw a deft long pass to Booker for a breakaway dunk.

“Being out on the floor and going over strategy and you know, just talking with the guys, camaraderie, all that stuff, I missed it all,” Durant said with a smile. “So I’m good. I’m glad I got to be back on the floor today and try to build towards something.”

What’s been building is a potentially awkward reunion with Irving. Sunday’s matchup is a possible playoff preview and a key test for both retrofitted teams. And, of course, a chance to make a statement even if Durant doesn’t want to admit it.

“We’ve played against each other before, competed against each other before. But it’s all about us [the Suns],” said Durant after scoring 20 points Friday night as the team won by 21 in Chicago. “I’m sure they feel the same way.”

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