When the Celtics’ schedule was unveiled, the Oklahoma City Thunder coming to TD Garden Wednesday night was considered another game in a treacherous stretch against title-contending teams. The Cavaliers are at the Garden Friday. The Grizzlies (at Memphis), Bulls, and Spurs are on tap later this month.
But in two weeks, the perception of the Thunder around the NBA changed dramatically. In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter of an Oct. 30 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City was represented by Perry Jones, Sebastian Telfair, Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison.
That’s because Russell Westbrook was on the sideline with ice on his right hand, which had been broken in an second-quarter collision. Thus Westbrook has joined Kevin Durant, sporting a large boot on his fractured right foot, in custom suits on the sideline. Two of the top 10 NBA players are at the end of the Thunder bench, only capable of offering moral support while their teammates stumbled to begin a once-promising season.
Durant, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, may return by mid-December, and Westbrook will be back before then, but the Thunder are off to a 2-5 start and hoping the absences of their core players will not cost them dearly as the season progresses.
Oklahoma City has cemented itself among the league’s elite for the past half-decade, but it has resulted in only one NBA Finals appearance. This was supposed to the season the Thunder, fully healthy and irked about last season’s disposal at the hands of the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, possibly got back to the Finals.
Privately the organization hasn’t panicked. Not even close. The Thunder acquired Jeremy Lamb in the James Harden deal for a reason. They drafted Jones late in the first round in 2012 for a reason. They re-signed Serge Ibaka for a reason.
The Thunder are trying to weather the storm, playing their younger players, hoping to stay afloat until Westbrook and Durant return and then hopefully take off and nestle themselves amongst the Spurs, Warriors, and Clippers, where they belong.
At least that’s the plan, and short of winning a championship, general manager Sam Presti’s vision for the organization has worked to perfection.
“Obviously it’s not an ideal situation, but we aren’t under an illusion that we control these types of things,” Presti said. “We do know that the measure of our team will be our ability to take purposeful action with regard to how we respond, how we react, how we adjust, and how we adapt. You can either withdraw or advance when presented with circumstances such as these, and our organizational mentality is that we will advance.”
The organization views these next few weeks as an important growth period for the complementary players. One of the primary reasons the Thunder have struggled over the past few years is the lack of an adequate replacement for Harden, who was moved to the Rockets because the Thunder did not want to sign him to a hefty, cap-clogging extension.
Former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson has shown flashes of being that replacement, but he is 19 for 53 shooting (35 percent) and 5 for 18 from the 3-point line in his past three games, causing some consternation from teammates Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Jackson loves to shoot but sometimes shoots too much, going against the team’s ball movement philosophy when Durant and Westbrook aren’t on the floor. The Thunder have spent the past few seasons surrounding those two with depth, adding Perkins, drafting Adams and Andre Roberson, and allowing Jones to finally get quality playing time after two years on the bench (Jones and Roberson are currently hurt, too, though).
The hope is that those pieces will be simmering and prepared for increased responsibility by the time the dynamic duo returns. While the Thunder consider themselves a factor in coming years, there is an outside since of urgency about competing for a championship.
Durant is a free agent after the 2015-16 season and his native Washington Wizards are expected to one of many teams making a push with a maximum contract and a chance to compete for a championship immediately. There has been speculation that Durant has cooled on Oklahoma City as a long-term locale after he signed a five-year extension in 2010.
Presti is banking that the foundation laid in the past five years and the potential to compete with a young roster is enough encouragement for Durant to stay.
“There has been an urgency to every year, that mission in itself is driven by working to build an enduring and values-based organization that can support championship level teams year in and year out and not reduce ourselves to one or two years of contention,” Presti said. “We believe we are positioned to maximize the present while also staying disciplined to an approach that will [enable] us to sustain the level of the team throughout the prime years of our core players. This has been the vision we have been working with each year since 2008 knowing that our vision for the future should set the agenda for today.”
The Thunder have dealt with their share of setbacks. Oklahoma City was supposed to freight-train through the playoffs in 2013 before an unfortunate collision with Houston’s Patrick Beverley cost Westbrook the rest of the playoffs because of a knee injury. Last season, Ibaka played the postseason on one leg because of a strained calf.
Durant had been remarkably healthy before his Jones fracture in October, and just nine minutes into the game against the Clippers, Westbrook was headed through the tunnel with his hand injury. But don’t feel too sorry for the Thunder. They fully expect to be whole by Christmas and what happens then will be purely up to them.
“I think the first step in dealing with the unexpected is to demonstrate some gratitude for all of the positive things that have occurred for us,” Presti said. “Secondly is to look for the opportunities to advance ourselves that are wrapped within each adversity. In turn, not only is our depth increasing but also the disposition with which we deal with the unexpected or uncertainty. We have to have some emotional resiliency and a workman-like optimism in place before the unforeseen occurs because it is not if, but when.”