For a while, it finally felt like the Oklahoma City Thunder were getting past the storm of injuries that had overwhelmed them in the first half of the season. Kevin Durant was dealing with a minor toe issue that had him day-to-day for the end of January and beginning of February, but for the most part, the Thunder could finally focus on recovering from old wounds and getting back into the playoffs.
Then Steven Adams got hurt. He fractured his right hand yesterday in a matinee game versus the Los Angeles Clippers, underwent surgery and is expected to miss three weeks to heal. It's a frustrating blow to a team that finally seemed to be getting a reprieve in its injury misfortunes. In 50 games this season as the Thunder's starting center, Adams is averaging 7.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game.
The good news is, Adams isn't Durant or Russell Westbrook or even Serge Ibaka. He's an important player and the team's best center, but losing him for any amount of games doesn't spell doom the same way that losing one of the superstars does. An injury to Adams is at least bearable.
Photo credit: Mark D. Smith-USA Today Sports
Without Adams, Kendrick Perkins will most likely reprise his old role as starting center. That sounds like some horrible and twisted fate – Perkins is only averaging 4.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per game this season, with a 43.2% field goal percentage that comes in more than ten percentage points below Adams' mark of 54.7%.
Yet, here's a reminder that the Thunder got by fine with him as their starter for three and a half seasons. He's a fine post defender that's not quite as leaky on that end as his reputation suggests, and the Thunder have the weaponry to survive the influx of called illegal screens on offense. Ibaka remains to protect the rim. Nine games shouldn't be a problem – small-ball lineups and well-spaced offenses can pick Perkins apart, but Adams wasn't exactly the answer to shutting down those approaches either.
Scott Brooks will have to adjust his rotations, and the prospect of seeing more Mitch McGary is exciting. Called into action after Adams' injury against the Clippers, McGary blew up for 19 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes in what was his first time seeing substantial playing time in a NBA game. The Thunder don't quite know what they have in him yet, and with the trade deadline ten days away, it doesn't hurt to be able to take stock and assess the assets on the roster.
Apart from that, expect more Nick Collison (fresh off a two year, $8 million extension) and perhaps an extra sprinkle of small-ball. The addition of Dion Waiters has taken playing time away from the likes of Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow and Andre Roberson – there are no shortage of mouths to feed in Oklahoma City with Adams down.
In the abstract, losing Adams does only marginal harm to the Thunder. With that said, they don't have much wiggle room to give up along the margins. Due to the maelstrom of injuries from earlier in the season, the Thunder are scrapping just to get back into the playoffs. Currently, they sit tenth in the conference and two games behind the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns. A loss is a loss, and the Thunder can ill afford having Adams' absence cost them too much in the win column.
Getting the All-Star break this weekend is a bit of a reprieve, and the Thunder will play only nine games over the next three weeks. Four of those games come against teams under .400, but another four come against teams currently lined up for a Western Conference playoff seed, including an important face-off against the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns on February 26th. The Thunder will have to be on the watch for the Suns' zippy ball-handlers and a well-spaced offense – playing Perkins too much in that particular matchup could be costly.
They'll play the rugged Memphis Grizzlies this Wednesday, where Perkins will likely prove a plus but the absence of Adams will be felt all the same. After the All-Star break, the Thunder have statement games against the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers on their slate – both efficient offenses that swing the ball from side to side with swift precision.
With Adams out for those games, Perkins and the rest of the Thunder's reserve big man corps will be called into greater roles over the next three weeks. The damage done should be minimal, but for the Thunder who are still playing catch-up ball from injuries earlier in the season, avoiding further slippage will be crucial.