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Overcoming the Thunder injury bug

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Every time the Thunder seem to get a good thing going, something else goes wrong. Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or are they doomed?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The look on Scott Brooks' face said it all. After Mitch McGary committed an intentional foul with 31 seconds left - and just 20 seconds on the shot clock - with the Thunder down just 3, Brooks couldn't do anything beyond repeat what everyone had been yelling right before the rookie made that huge mistake, "Don't foul."

He wasn't shouting it the way he was a few seconds prior, it was merely a mutter to himself. It was disbelief. Disbelief that, throughout everything that has gone wrong, and all the opportunities the Thunder has had to overcome those hardships, maybe they just really can't catch a break.

That's not a knock on Brooks, it's just an observation that he's not immune to feeling exactly what everyone that has sat through nailbiter after nailbiter has felt. By now, you're familiar with the formula: The Thunder, shorthanded, hang around in the beginning, spring out to a lead sometime in the middle frames, then slowly give that lead away, largely due to the inability to keep the opponent in front of them on defense. The Thunder never give the game away, though, and actually have an opportunity to avoid the inevitable collapse by making one or two more plays. Only, mistakes (or selfish play) rear their ugly head at the worst possible moment and they simply can't close the deal.

That's not a pattern unique to the Thunder, either. It's inherent in most young, inexperienced teams. The problem is that the Thunder aren't young or inexperienced. Well, they shouldn't be.

That's where we are now, though, left leaning on that "injuries" excuse that seems to be so convenient after horrible, frustrating losses like last night. It's surely frustrating to the fanbases of the other 29 teams to hear that excuse, because Thunder fans crying "woe is me" is the last thing they want to hear. But with how the bad news has seemed to flow from one week to the next, I feel like I need to say it anyway.

I don't really know what point there is to make beyond "injuries suck, the Thunder can't stop being afflicted by them." Maybe that is the point, though. Each and every game has been an absolute grind, a test of the strength of each and every member of the Thunder. It's been a test of the Thunder fanbase, too. Heck, I've skipped a couple games this year just because I needed a break from feeling utterly spent from watching a team put me through the ringer for the better part of three hours.

If that's the way you or I feel, you can only imagine the mental toll it must be taking on every Thunder player and coach. That's how you get an exasperated Scott Brooks after a stupid foul by McGary. That feeling of, "what more can I possibly overcome?" wasn't unique to just last night. It's been the theme of the entire Thunder season. Every time things seem like they're about to start clicking, there's another setback. Plug one hole, the water comes out another. Make the right decision and tell your team not to foul, the rookie still can't comprehend. As a coach, you can only do so much.

That's before you get to the defensive breakdowns that have plagued the team the past month, too, which could be tied to the fact that the Thunder gave up their defensive leader in Kendrick Perkins. More than that, though, it goes back to that whole issue of not being able to keep a consistent lineup together. Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter seemed to have finally found the right balance in how to play off one another, but with the latest injury to Ibaka's knee, Kanter - already not a great defender - is left having to figure out how to play off an entirely different set of players for the third time in six weeks.

That's the way it's been all year for the Thunder, and it's looking like that's the way it will be the rest of the way. Kevin Durant coming back will help, more than we probably even appreciate, but even that is just another piece to the Thunder puzzle.

That's really what all of this complaining leads to, that "light at the end of the tunnel" thing, because that's where we are, today, with a month to go in the regular season. Like they have been in so many games this year, the Thunder find themselves somehow in the running to pull it out, relying on a cast of characters they don't entirely know yet.

It's what we've been hoping for all year, though, having Westbrook's MVP-caliber motor, combined with Kevin Durant's reigning-MVP closing ability. It's the only tried and true formula for success, and until the Thunder gets beat with that on the table, there's no way you can totally write them off, no matter how many back-breaking games they give away in the final minutes.

It doesn't make any of what has been happening any easier, though. Sometimes you just need a good, old-fashioned rant session, though, to say "yeah this sucks, but there's hope yet." All the nailbiters, all the dumb mistakes, all the head-scratching decision-making and hero ball in crunch time, it's all been valuable experience. And as the pieces begin to stabilize, and the most stabilizing force is set to return, it could all be worth it in the end. After all, the Thunder are still in prime position to pull off that final possession and come away with the most well-deserved win (playoff appearance) yet.

Or they could be left gasping and muttering to themselves in utter disbelief that something else went wrong. Can't say we wouldn't expect it.