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After teaming up for two titles, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are thriving apart

Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry will meet Tuesday when the Brooklyn Nets host the Golden State Warriors. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
5 min

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Superstar divorces in the NBA can get petty and messy, but the split between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry was about as amicable as it gets.

The run-up to Durant’s 2019 decision to leave the Golden State Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets was tense and draining, but the aftermath has lacked acrimony. Durant, weeks removed from a traumatic Achilles’ tendon injury during the NBA Finals, announced his plan to join Kyrie Irving quickly and with little fanfare. Whereas Russell Westbrook adopted an edgy and confrontational posture when Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, Curry moved on with no apparent heartbreak.

Even in the absence of animus — like Westbrook’s “cupcake” jabs or Shaquille O’Neal’s off-color rap about Kobe Bryant — the breakup left marks on both sides. Resettled now in their new lives with remade supporting casts, Durant and Curry have emerged as the NBA’s leading scorers and top MVP candidates, prompting early dreams of a 2022 Finals showdown.

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During their three-year union, Durant and Curry won two championships and, in 2017, led a Golden State juggernaut that was so powerful that it prompted backlash over the NBA’s lack of competitive balance. They did so while exhibiting professional respect but not much intimacy, often projecting as opposites: Durant, a reserved sniper who wore Nikes and took heat for tagging along with a historic 73-win team, vs. Curry, the expressive magician who fronted Under Armour and selflessly shared the stage.

Since Durant’s restlessness clashed with Curry’s joy in their final months together, they have traveled remarkably similar paths. Their first post-divorce campaigns were lost causes: Durant rehabbed his Achilles’ tendon, and Curry logged just five appearances because of a hand injury. Both played spectacularly in 2020-21 but were tripped up by injuries to key teammates: Durant couldn’t will the Nets past the second round with Irving out and James Harden limited, and Curry’s one-man act came up short in the Western Conference play-in round without Klay Thompson.

But two years of hardships have been replaced by hot starts over the first month of this season. Curry (28.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game) has led the Warriors (11-2) past LeBron James’s injury-ravaged Los Angeles Lakers to the top of the West standings, with good vibes flowing throughout a roster that includes familiar faces Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala and helpful newcomers Nemanja Bjelica and Gary Payton II. Thompson’s impending return is one more cause for optimism.

Warriors team owner Joe Lacob said recently that this group reminds him of the 2014-15 Warriors, an apt reference given their strong chemistry and two-way balance. Thanks in part to a soft early schedule, Golden State ranks second in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. Curry’s showmanship is back in peak form, whether he’s tossing a 40-foot pass backward over his head, celebrating a three-pointer a full beat before it swishes through the hoop or turning in this season’s only 50-point performance.

Golden State also appears to have benefited from the NBA’s rule changes that have led to drops in free throw attempts and scoring. Never a major practitioner of “non-basketball moves,” Curry is averaging roughly the same number of free throw attempts as he did during his two MVP seasons. Meanwhile, Coach Steve Kerr’s motion-heavy offense has Golden State near the top of the leader board in three-point volume and efficiency, and Green has set an active, physical defensive tone for a versatile group that ranks third in opponent three-point efficiency.

Life hasn’t been quite as peachy for the Nets, who have been consumed by Irving’s vaccination drama and Harden’s slow start, which can be attributed to the rule changes and his summer away from full-speed action because of his hamstring injury.

Yet Irving’s absence and Harden’s spotty play shouldn’t overshadow Durant’s masterful and consistent opening month. Picking up right where he left off during the 2021 playoffs and the Tokyo Olympics, Durant (29.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists) is leading the league in scoring while shooting 58.6 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from deep. Like Curry, Durant has been impervious to the rule changes while leading Brooklyn (10-4) back to its perch near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

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The Nets haven’t looked as dynamic as they did with their full complement of talent last season, but their oft-criticized defense has been unexpectedly stout and their experience has shown through late in close games. Without question, they have enjoyed a better start than the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, the reigning East finalists. Harden should get steadier in the coming months, and the Nets will continue to cross their fingers for a midseason return by Irving, who has remained silent for weeks since confirming he was unvaccinated.

A chief complaint about Durant’s 2016 free agency decision was that it short-circuited a budding rivalry between the Thunder and Warriors right after their classic Western Conference finals battle. Come June, the Warriors and Nets could offer quite the sequel. For Durant, a rematch would provide a referendum on his decisions to leave the Warriors and to trust Irving. For Curry, it would be an opportunity to show how he resurrected a franchise with his loyalty and leadership and to claim Finals MVP, the most prestigious honor that has eluded him.

O’Neal and Bryant never went head-to-head in the postseason after they fell out. Neither did LeBron James and Dwyane Wade once the “Heatles” dissolved in 2014. While Durant vs. Curry might not be as personal as those hypothetical duels, just imagine the competitive intensity and exquisite skill.