The day started with bad news and then Thunder coach Scott Brooks started a lineup that made you shake your head.
How do you not start worrying with this first five who looked more suited to play in an October preseason game than a home game in March.
Before noon, it was announced Kevin Durant was no longer able to practice and by game time, with the mighty Hawks in town, the panic level was extreme.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti spoiled lunch by saying Durant was not taking taking part in basketball activities and continued on by saying Durant was out indefinitely.
Earlier this week, Serge Ibaka had knee surgery, so the idea of the Thunder winning a championship seems like a mirage and the idea of injuries becoming the fabric that ties this team’s story together year after year, season after season seems so real. Last April, it was Ibaka getting injured in the playoffs. The year before that it was Westbrook who missed the second round of the postseason. This season, the injury list has been longer than a CVS receipt. If you’re wearing Thunder colors, you’ve been hurt. No OKC player has suited up for every game.
Maybe that’s why Friday night was so satisfying as Oklahoma City beat Atlanta 123-115.
On an evening filled with massive games –Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament and playing at the same time as the Thunder –another sellout crowd showed up and saw a tease of what could be. What might be. If only. A blend of teamwork and passion. The Thunder played inspired and they played desperate. They played as if the season depended on it, mad about losing a superstar in Ibaka and with furious anger about losing Durant.
"We’re not in desperation mode," Brooks said before the game, but, man, shouldn’t they be? They wore it well on Saturday. It suited them.
Russell Westbrook carried the day, like he’s done so many times this season, going for another triple-double, his ninth this season. Westbrook had 36 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, but it was also …
Nick Collison going six-for-nine, blocking two shots, picking up five rebounds and scoring 13 points, playing two possessions on a balky ankle and then needing crutches to get to his locker. No report on how long Collison will be out.
Dion Waiters with full-focus, pumping his fist when the Hawks missed free throws and begging for the crowd to somehow get louder than playoff-decible loud. Waiters scored 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
It was also…
Anthony Morrow, hired sharp-shooter, expected to be the complementary piece to push the Thunder toward a title, stretch the floor with Durant and Westbrook. Instead, Morrow has played as an essential piece, not a luxury. He went for six 3-pointers and 21 points in 31 minutes. Each 3-pointer more important than the previous, making two in the third quarter and four in the fourth quarter.
Steven Adams, with 12 points, 16 rebounds and a toughness that comes from having to play 35 minutes when the Thunder’s other inside threat –Enes Kanter –is out with an ankle sprain of his own.
It’s the kind of performance that usually appears when a star player gets injured or a coach gets fired. A desperate scramble of emotion and want-to and hope. All the things you love about sports and try so hard to explain as you put an arm around a 7 year-old and show him or her what perfect teamwork looks like when it’s done correctly.
Westbrook started the fourth quarter. Westbrook never starts the fourth quarter. Perry Jones played. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen him contribute meaningful minutes. Steve Novak got in during the first quarter. Huh?
"We have had a lot of different things we have had to overcome," Brooks said. "Our players deserve the credit. Our locker room has done a good job maintaining what’s important."
The Thunder trailed by 11 in the third quarter and were ahead by 10 in the fourth quarter against the 53-16 Hawks.
"Tonight we came out and played hard and played together and when we got down we didn’t get discouraged," Waiters said. "We stayed with it, made shots and got stops when we needed to."
Friday started with bad news and the game started with a lot of doubt.
Maybe that’s why the result was so impressive.
"We’ve been doing it all year," Brooks said. "We’ve been somewhat wounded and fought every night.They played with great spirit tonight."