OKLAHOMA CITY -- With a towel wrapped tightly around his head midway through the fourth quarter, Russell Westbrook looked to the far end of Chesapeake Energy Arena at a video screen flashing NBA scores.
His Oklahoma City Thunder were sleepwalking through another rout at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, and what was more important than the garbage time happening in front of him was whatever was happening in New Orleans.
Westbrook said postgame he was unaware of the outcome in New Orleans, but as the Thunder took their 113-88 spanking, the Pelicans edged the Golden State Warriors to go a half-game up for the 8-seed in the West -- and one up in the loss column -- which is essentially two, by virtue of holding the tiebreaker.
It's suddenly simple: The Thunder's playoff hopes are officially on life support. What once seemed like nonsense to suggest is on the verge of becoming a harsh reality. With four games to play, the Thunder, who have lost four straight and six of their past seven, must win out and hope the Pelicans lose twice. And in the form they're currently in, that's a big stretch.
"We've never been in this position, so this is our first time fighting for a spot," Westbrook said. "It's definitely a different feeling for us, but at the same time all we can do is control our own destiny and come out every night and compete at a high level."
There are reasons -- good ones, too -- for the situation they're in. The reigning MVP Kevin Durant has played in only 27 games and isn't coming back this season. Westbrook has missed 15 games, 14 of which coincided with Durant, putting the Thunder in a 3-12 hole to begin the season. Serge Ibaka has missed the past three weeks following knee surgery. It's been a season of extreme attrition for the Thunder, who might finally be mercifully put out of their misery.
"We've played four good teams this month of April," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "The first three games could've gone either way. A break here or there, and we could've won a couple of those games. Tonight's game, hopefully, is just tonight. We have to somehow regroup and come back much better Friday."
Thirteen days ago, the Spurs blasted the Thunder by 39. That started the downward spiral Oklahoma City has been in, with the lone win in their past seven tries being a 20-point comeback in Phoenix. Westbrook may be running on fumes, with the burden of trying to carry a young, inexperienced roster into the postseason finally weighing him down. The Thunder have bounced back admirably from each blow they've been dealt, but at a certain point -- against the teeth of the West -- missing the four-time scoring champ and best shot-blocker in the league is going to catch up.
"No matter how you slice it, it is just not a fair fight," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Nobody is going to give back the win. We are going to take the win and I thought we played well, but you just still feel badly when you see Kevin in that chair out there and the other guys are hurt. It is just not a fair fight."
Nobody anticipated losing Durant for the rest of the season, but even with the incredible adversity, given the run Westbrook was on and the increased depth around him, the Thunder still were seen as a playoff lock. It seemed unfathomable two weeks ago when they were four games up that they'd be staring at the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether.
This Thunder team was a title contender in October, but everything changed the minute Durant went under the knife to repair his broken foot. Then it changed again when Westbrook broke his hand in the second game of the season and missed a month. Nothing has gone right for them all season, and the mere fact they've clawed to this position is fairly remarkable.
"You've got to feel badly for these guys," Popovich said. "You feel sorry for them, but you're proud of them at the same time because they play the right way and they do everything they can to win. They don't cry. They just go play."
The Thunder are trying to remain positive, trying to look at this as an opportunity to force their way into the playoff picture. But it's out of their hands now. They need help to get in, and even that concept seems difficult to grasp.
"We've got to worry about Thunder basketball. We can't worry about New Orleans," Dion Waiters said. "We control our own destiny, they control their own destiny. Coming into every game, we know what we need. We know what we gotta do. We gotta stay locked in and play every game like it's our last, and everything else will take care of itself."
Head-scratching aside, the point is this: The Thunder have four games left. All four relatively winnable, current form notwithstanding. And while a ticket to the postseason might just earn them a four-game sweep at the hands of the mighty Warriors, it would be a nice feather in their cap to at least get there, considering how this season has gone.
"There's no question we want to make the playoffs," Brooks said. "We're not going down like we went down tonight. We're going to come back, we're going to regroup and we're going to play much better Friday night."