By Darnell Mayberry
ONTARIO, Calif. – Before Joe Smith walked to the free throw line midway through the second quarter, the Thunder power forward walked over to coach P.J. Carlesimo for a helping hand.
Smith removed his newly acquired clear facemask. Carlesimo raised a towel to the mask and helped wipe away the sweat.
“It’s hot up under that thing,” Smith said. “It’s always dripping and sweating.”
Smith hadn’t played since Oct. 10 at Sacramento when he sustained a fractured nose courtesy of teammate Russell Westbrook’s inadvertent elbow. Friday’s 105-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers was the first time in his 13-year career that he’s had to play with a mask.
“It’s going to take some getting used to,” Smith said. “I knew that from the beginning. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My vision is not blurred as much so it’s not too bad.”
Smith wasn’t supposed to play in the preseason finale, which dropped the Thunder to 1-6 for the exhibition season. But he was ahead of schedule in his recovery and didn’t want to go into Wednesday’s season opener against Milwaukee having played only 25 minutes this preseason on top of having to adjust to a pesky face protector.
Carlesimo eased Smith back into the lineup, playing him only 19 minutes and avoiding prolonged stretches. Smith finished with seven points, five coming from the free throw line, and added four rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot.
Smith said his conditioning was better than he thought it would be but his timing was still off.
“That’s not something I’m not really worried about. I know that will come,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to get comfortable with the mask. That’s what I’m concerned about right now.”
Smith wasn’t so comfortable Friday, admitting he was hesitant in traffic. But he took two shots to the face against the Lakers that gave him confidence he could survive blows when mixing it up in the lane.
“I just got to get used to being in the paint and being around a lot of bodies again,” Smith said.
Smith’s role becomes more important if Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox don’t get healthy. Wilcox missed his second consecutive game Friday because of a strained hamstring. Collison started the game but did not return for the second half after hyperextending his right knee.
“If we’re banged up with those other ones, we may really need him for these first three (regular season game) if these other guys aren’t healthy,” said Carlesimo.
Perhaps Smith’s biggest hurdle will be learning to play with a new set of teammates after only 44 minutes of preseason action and very few practice hours while protecting his injury.
Smith, however, doesn’t think the adjustment will be much of a problem.
“I’ve played with all types of guys,” Smith said. “I’ve been around long enough to understand what it takes to be successful and to be a contributor out there on the floor. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but I don’t think it’s going to take too much time. It’s basketball.”
Said Collison: “He’s a pro. He’s a veteran. He gets himself ready to play. I think he’s going to be great for us. He’s a good example for all of us. He’s got more experience than anybody on the team. He just really knows how to play and does his job and comes to work every day.”
By Darnell Mayberry