OKLAHOMA CITY -- It was sometime after 3 a.m. and the Thunder were just getting to Boston. It was only a few hours after they'd taken a difficult 85-78 loss to the Bucks, a game in which all their worst fears of a Durant- and Westbrook-less world came to life. They shot 33 percent. They scored just 14 points in the fourth quarter.
They lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.
And they fell to 2-6 on the season.
Less than 24 hours later, they were in Boston, and everything was finally unraveling. Sure, the Thunder had been surprisingly competitive in their opening two weeks against mostly good teams, absorbing injury after injury, but reality was setting in. Playing not just without their two franchise cornerstones, but with only 10 healthy players, it didn't appear that the Thunder had anything left, either mentally or physically. On the heels of the disappointing finish in Milwaukee, the Thunder were down 18-3 to the Celtics within minutes and were headed for the kind of sobering loss that's tough to spin positively in any way. The second night of a back-to-back with a depleted roster, it was the kind of game where it's socially acceptable to fold the tent, take your butt-kicking and try to regroup on the plane ride home.
The Thunder finished out the first quarter decently -- down just 24-15 -- but still, the next three quarters seemed to just be a matter of inevitability. Instead, behind second-half eruptions from Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow, the Thunder cruised to a 109-94 win, a game that within the organization was already being bookmarked as a touchstone to reflect on when things finally start trending upward again.
The way this story was supposed to go is that the Thunder marched on, following up that emotional win in Boston with back-to-back victories in Oklahoma City against the Pistons and Rockets over the weekend, inching closer to .500. But it was never going to be that easy.
OKC fell in overtime to the Pistons 96-89, with a potential Jackson game winner bouncing twice on the rim before falling helplessly to the hardwood. Two nights later, on Sunday, the Thunder found themselves in a rock fight with the Rockets, slugging through a horrific offensive night in which both teams shot under 30 percent, only to lose 69-65.
Two more games in which they were right there. Yet two more losses added to the tally, two more deflating setbacks, two more games Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are going to have to make up if the Thunder are even going to reach the postseason. They're sitting at 3-8, already 3½ games out of the playoffs. They're on the fringe already, a season with championship dreams nearing implosion before Thanksgiving.
The sermon that general manager Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks have been repeating is that the Thunder aren't sitting on their hands waiting until their horses return. They have a vision to be an improved team not just by the opportunities that role players such as Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Serge Ibaka, Perry Jones and Steven Adams are getting, but to be better off in the long run by standing in the fire and not turning to ashes. The growing worry, though, is that it might be too late before Durant and Westbrook can return and (maybe) provide salvation.
There's certainly something to take from the fact that the Thunder have remained competitive, losing to the West's present top two teams -- Memphis and Houston -- by a combined six points. Wins are obviously what matter, and the Thunder aren't doing enough of that right now. Internally, they set a target to be at least .500 by the time they're whole again sometime in mid-December. It's going to take considerable work to get there, but despite the negative nightly results, there's still plenty of optimism in Oklahoma City.
Even with the losing, there's something somewhat spiritual happening for the Thunder. If you're looking only at box scores and results, you won't see it, but there's a certain character the team is showcasing. No, it's not translating to wins -- yet -- but the consistent effort, the constant energy, the ever-present resiliency have been remarkable in the face of extreme adversity. A game against the powerful Rockets should've been a 30-point blowout. Yet the Thunder were unfazed, even with their putrid offensive performance, and had a chance to pull off a stunner.
The "Thunder culture" is something that's become almost mystical around the league, with other organizations trying to replicate the kind of streamlined, selfless vision Presti has cultivated in OKC. But it's pretty easy to have a culture worth envying when you've got transcendent stars like Durant and Westbrook carrying the burden. It's times like these when assembling a roster with ample amounts of intestinal fortitude pays off.
Presti has actively pursued high-character players, placing value not just in how someone rebounds or helps defend the weak side, but in how a player interacts with his teammates, how he practices, how he approaches each game. In rookie Mitch McGary's introductory press conference, Presti noted that the Thunder actually spent time scouting how the Michigan forward interacted with teammates while he was injured last season. Coincidentally, McGary is one of the current injured Thunder players and is getting a firsthand lesson in how to support teammates from the bench from reigning MVP Durant.
Durant remains an omnipresent fixture at every Thunder game, both by his extremely noticeable absence on the floor as well as his nonstop involvement off it. Durant is constantly engaged on the bench, joining coaches in the huddle, arguing with referees, trash-talking opponents, screaming constant encouragement, living and dying with each possession. Durant is the physical embodiment of the Thunder's team-first mentality, the poster child for how to be a great teammate. And as he's watched from the bench, even with the hole getting deeper for him to have to lift them out of, he's anything but discouraged by what he's observed.
"Everybody is counting us out every game, but we’re there every single night. We’re playing competitive basketball," Durant said. "As a teammate, I couldn’t be more proud to be on this team and a part of this organization. We’re showing our true colors as a whole. I’m excited to be a part of something so special."
The Thunder are missing their cutting edge, the razor-sharp efficiency that enables them to steamroll most opponents. They traditionally overwhelm teams with talent, and when things get rocky -- like a 13-point deficit in Game 5 against the Clippers last postseason -- they have an uncanny knack to find a way. But that's not resiliency; that's heroism. And there's a discernible difference between the two, especially right now.
"First of all, no one is feeling sorry for themselves," Durant said. "After every one of these games, they leave it all out there and they still come back to the locker room and say the main thing is that we don’t take moral victories. We want wins. That shows the character of our team and our group of guys."
The prevailing thought has always been that the Thunder target high-character players to align with where they play. With a fan base in middle America, having a roster that reflects the community and state on the floor and relates well off the floor is vital in establishing a connection. But it's not just about branding and marketing a roster to your primary demographic; it's about having a team with a spine, one built to survive extreme adversity. And that's what Presti has. The Thunder aren't strangers to difficult situations. They've had back-to-back postseasons derailed by injuries to key players, and while the excuse card has always been available to play, they've taken the setbacks as an opportunity to adapt, to evolve, to improve.
In the pile of close losses to begin this season, the Thunder have been plagued by correctable issues, like attempting only 11 free throws against the Grizzlies and six against the Pistons. Like giving up 22 offensive rebounds to the Rockets. Like turning it over 21 times against the Raptors. Those are all damning problems for any team, but when a team is missing two of the best players in the world, there's no margin for error. There's a reason -- or two of them, actually -- the Thunder haven't lost very often the last five years.
But the clock ticks with each game. Durant and Westbrook are getting closer, and once the cavalry arrives, the Thunder are capable of winning 15 in a row. Fans are waking up each morning reminding themselves of that, but it doesn't change the fact that it might be a hill too steep to climb. And with another clock ticking -- the one to 2016 -- the prospect of losing a precious season before Durant's free agency is potentially devastating.
While there's plenty of anxiety in Oklahoma City, fans understand the situation. They shower the team with standing ovations after good quarters and, if anything, seem to have developed a deeper appreciation for the roster, looking past the superstar anchors. There seems to be a strong reluctance to panic, even with harrowing facts such as this one: The Thunder had 27 wins last season before their eighth loss. There's a belief that everyone will be better off for this in the end, but at the expense of what? Just home-court advantage in the postseason, or something worse, like a ticket to the playoffs altogether?
Reinforcements are coming, though, and eventually they're going to join a tighter, stronger, more bonded group. The Thunder are having their mettle tested, something they aren't unfamiliar with or afraid of. Because they've been built for it.