On Thursday night, the Thunder’s starting lineup was finally back at full strength.
By Sunday, that group will be incomplete again.
During Oklahoma City’s loss to Miami, Kendrick Perkins got tangled up with Shane Battier on a screen and came up limping.
An MRI on Friday revealed a left groin strain. Perkins will be sidelined into next week, where he’ll get further evaluation from a specialist.
And if it proves to be significant, the Thunder could go an extended stretch without its starting center for the first time since 2011.
Perkins missed three games at the end of last season, mainly for rest. And he missed two games earlier this year for personal reasons.
But this upcoming batch of games without Perkins — and a likely cautious pre-playoffs approach when he gets back — will provide an interesting case study.
Some restless Thunder fans have clamored for either a Perkins amnesty or benching the past two seasons. In a different way, that Perkins-less wish is about to come true. For better or worse.
This season, OKC has been a slightly better defensive team with Perkins on the court (0.2 fewer opponent points per 100 possessions) and a far better offensive team with him off it (7.6 more points per 100 possessions). The two previous seasons, it was more of the same, although not as skewed.
He’s a great post defender and rim protector, but a virtual negative on the offensive end.
So in some ways, his absence will provide the Thunder with some potential positives. Rookie center Steven Adams is expected to start in his place and receive some needed opportunity. Plus, guys such as Nick Collison and Perry Jones should expect a minutes bump.
And beyond that, the Thunder will likely go small more, playing Kevin Durant at the power forward, which has worked out great in spurts. The Thunder has plenty of versatility.
But that’s also where the Perkins injury also negatively affects OKC.
It loses a piece of that flexibility. While typically a liability against small-ball teams like the Heat, Perkins’ defense is valuable against scoring big men.
He’s one of the best low post defenders in the game, shown by opponent’s 40.2 shooting percentage near the rim against him, fifth lowest in the NBA among rotation players who contest at least three shots per game.
In the season's final 26 games, OKC plays Dwight Howard twice. Next week, the Thunder faces Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Memphis. And on Sunday, they’re up against Chris Paul, the lightning quick Clippers point guard who abused Adams on the pick and roll earlier this season. Perkins missed that game, and the Thunder lost.
Can they survive against these bigger teams? Can they thrive now that coach Scott Brooks is forced to go more versatile? We’re about to find out.