No longer confined to wearing a walking boot on his broken right foot, Durant is about three weeks away from getting re-evaluated but has already missed more games than in his previous five seasons combined. And with Westbrook’s broken right hand also sidelining him until December, the Oklahoma Thunder finds itself on a mission to keep a leaky dinghy from sinking before the rescue boat arrives.
“As long as we keep our head above water until our horses get back we’ll be all right,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. “It’s hard. [Not having Durant and Westbrook] is always in the back of your mind, that’s why you try to squeeze out every win that you can. I think it’s try to stay one game above .500 or one game below .500 until you get all your horses back. We capable of running off 10 in a row with one or two of them.”
The Indiana Pacers can’t speak with similar confidence, even under the highly unlikely scenario that Paul George makes a miraculous return from his horrific broken leg this season.
The Pacers had considerable incentive to scrap their current strategy to build a competitive team and start anew, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested that the Thunder should enter the “race for the bottom” instead of a ring. But the beleaguered conference runners-up are both determined to hold on, in the name of pride, in pursuit of wins, in unseemly circumstances.
“We just have to weather the storm,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said recently when the Pacers visited D.C.
The defending champion San Antonio Spurs are the only conference finalist that entered this season relatively intact. Miami had to overcome the defection of LeBron James to Cleveland but doubled-down on its remaining core and signed former all-star Luol Deng to remain competitive in the wide open Eastern Conference.
Indiana and Oklahoma City have been tormented with the kind of bad luck that should increase the urgency for any team that believes it has a championship window.
The Pacers’ title aspirations were shattered the moment George broke his leg while training for Team USA, a gruesome injury that came shortly after the team lost borderline all-star Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. But their desires of simply being a playoff team have been undermined by more injuries that leave Roy Hibbert as the lone remaining starter from the team that lost to Miami in each of the past two conference finals. With the undrafted Donald Sloan and late first-round pick Solomon Hill as his running mates, Hibbert has kept the team competitive as Indiana has lost just one game by double-digits and forced Washington to overtime.
“I’m trying to make an impact as much as I can whether it’s passing or screening on the offensive end or rebounding and blocking shots on the defensive end,” Hibbert said, before stating the obvious, “I can’t wait until everybody gets healthy.”
David West and George Hill, the other holdovers from the Pacers’ old core five, are also joined on the list of wounded players by C.J. Watson and free agent pickups Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles for a team that is tied with New York and Orlando for the second-worst record in the conference at 2-6.
“The last few years, it’s been about trying to get one of the top spots in the East,” West said recently. “Obviously, that’s not where we are now but we’ve got to continue to remain confident and keep fighting. We’re in the East. We’re not in the West. We got a chance.”
The Thunder the same record as Indiana in the highly competitive West but still has the talent to contend for a title, even if the important pieces are wearing sport coats. Anthony Morrow returned from a sprained medial collateral ligament on Tuesday, giving the Thunder 10 healthy players, but it continues to be without its stars, as well as Perry Jones, Mitch McGary, Grant Jerrett and Andre Roberson.
“You can’t imagine so many guys going down, especially with major injuries and being out so long. We’ve been trying to prepare ourselves for this battle. Mentally, it was stressing at first. You also understand that God has a plan,” said Reggie Jackson, who is averaging 21.8 points, 7.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds in his new role as go-to player in the absence of Durant and Westbrook. “When we can get everybody back, we can put up 120 points a night.”
Cuban recently suggested that Oklahoma City should take the approach that San Antonio employed to get Tim Duncan after David Robinson broke his foot in the 1996-97 season: rest everybody and add a promising talent in the draft.
“Tanking is not something that we’ll consider. I don’t think any team is focused on doing that. We’re a pro team, we get paid to play,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said. “We have a choice when you’re faced with adversity. Either to back down and surrender or stand up and take charge and that’s what we’ve chosen to do. We’re focused on improving. Obviously, we’re a much better team with all of our players here. We’re not going to fool anybody. But I know we have enough to win. We have plenty in our locker room to win. It’s not ideal but it’s an opportunity to get better.”
Brooks didn’t have to think hard about Cuban’s ulterior motive by his comments. For any team fortunate enough to claim homecourt advantage in the Western Conference, there might not be a more frightening proposition than having to face Durant and Westbrook in the first round. Their presence in the playoff picture could actually inspire a different type of tanking with teams positioning themselves for a lower seed.
“You can see the light,” Perkins said. “It’s just about getting these wins.”