Kevin Durant said he was “super nervous” Sunday morning.
Unlike the first time the Miami Heat played the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, Durant would have to guard Dion Waiters hours later.
“I got to play ‘ball hard Waiters’ tonight,” Durant told Warriors reporters after the team’s pregame shootaround at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“It’s gonna be fun. He’s playing great basketball, and I’m so proud of him. I know it’s going to be a fun matchup between him and I. I don’t wanna call him my little brother, but he’s my brother of a younger age. I learned a lot from him. He learned a lot from me. It was a great, great relationship that we had and it’s gonna be a fun matchup.”
Durant, the former MVP and eight-time All-Star, had plenty of praise for his former teammate for two seasons with Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant even told reporters he owns property on “Waiters Island,” an inside joke referencing those who believe in Waiters’ talent during his NBA career.
“I got a mansion,” Durant said. “I own some property on ‘Waiters Island.’ It’s just me and him that live there. He knows where it is. We both know.”
Durant did not get to face Waiters the first time the Heat played the Warriors this season on Nov. 6 as Waiters returned to Miami to be there for the birth of his daughter.
In the Heat’s home victory last season against the Warriors on Jan. 23, Waiters hit the winning three-pointer.
“He’s always been a very explosive player, he was just inconsistent,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said prior to the game. “He looks like he’s found a home here and done a nice job. They [the Heat] need him. They need his scoring and his playmaking. He’s a good fit.”
Waiters wrote in an article for the Players Tribune last year following the Heat’s remarkable second-half turnaround, which included a big home win over the Warriors, that he didn’t think the Warriors wanted any part of the Heat in the playoffs.
Waiters wrote toward the end of the article: “I know Kev is reading this right now, like, ‘Thank God this dude is at home doing articles instead of lurking in the playoffs.’ You didn’t wanna see us, Kev!”
On Sunday, Durant told reporters he was happy for Waiters when he signed his four-year, $52 million contract with the Heat this summer.
“Selfishly, I wanted him to get more money so I was a little upset when he signed his deal because I wanted him to get more,” Durant said. “I wanted people to realize what he brings and what type of person and player he is, but you never complain with that type of money he got and the opportunity that he got down here.
“I’m just happy that he found a home. It’s hard in this league to be stable and to sign a contract for that long and just to know that you’ll be here for a while so it’s good for him to be stable and also the cherry on top is the money, but also the opportunity and just being able to be here with a group of guys for a long time is what I’m excited about for him.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Waiters’ game-winner against the Warriors provided a confidence boost late in games for the remainder of last season.
"We had already started to show some trends of really building a consistent defense, a top-five-level defense," Spoelstra said. "We were trending in the right direction offensively, where guys were getting more confident in their role, understanding how they could help the team, help each other, score points. But we were struggling in the last three minutes of games, of close games, and that gave us, Dion gave us a confidence that, ‘Hey, if we get stuck at the end of the clock, end of the possession, we have somebody who can get his own look and get a clean one.’ That's where he loves to be the most, anyway."
Spoelstra is now hoping Waiters can continue to improve his game beyond just crunch time.
"I really like the progress he's making," Spoelstra said. "I know his shooting numbers aren't showing it right now, not necessarily his turnovers. I think those will come down. I think his shooting percentage will come up, because he's starting to understand different reads, different coverages, and the responsibility of having to make plays for our basketball team. He’s seeing that at a deeper level."