In the NBA, teams rarely announce previously healthy players are out a day ahead of time, but that’s exactly what happened as the Phoenix Suns sent out their injury report for a Wednesday matchup with the Clippers. After a beatdown of the Jazz on Monday night in which he played a typical 38 minutes, Kelly Oubre Jr. was deemed out with a “right knee injury” on Tuesday’s injury report for the Clippers game. The Suns lost, 102-92, to the Clippers in part because they did not have the depth and scoring punch on the wing with Oubre out.
By Thursday afternoon, Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports reported Oubre suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee and was seeking a second opinion. Amidst a six-game home stand that will likely determine the Suns’ playoff fate, the Suns lost a consistent nightly scoring threat, a huge dose of athleticism, and the soul of their locker room.
Still, head coach Monty Williams was vague Friday morning when asked about the injury, and team officials emphasized an update would be sent out soon, but until then, Williams would be unable to provide an update.
“He’s not playing tonight and that’s pretty much all we have,” Williams said. “From my perspective, it’s pretty much about, you obviously hate when a guy gets hurt, but it’s a great time for Cam (Johnson), Mikal (Bridges) and another wing to step up and give us some of what Kelly brought to the table, but as it stands, he’s out.”
No timetable or explanation was given.
Earlier in the morning, Williams told The Doug & Wolf Show, “unfortunately Kelly most likely won’t be with us for a while,” and emphasized caution when it comes to a player dealing with an injury.
Despite the bizarre nature of the news cycle surrounding the injury, what’s clear is Oubre will be out a while, perhaps for the rest of the season. If Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers is any evidence, it will be difficult for the Suns to overcome his absence and get over the hump to claim the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The Suns have dealt with absences all year, including a 25-game suspension for Deandre Ayton and long-term injuries for Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and Ty Jerome. Through it all, however, Oubre was a reliable starting forward for the Suns, and put together the best season of his career. Without him, the Suns are missing a reliable scorer and defensive chaos agent.
“It’s a tough break for us, especially when our team just got 100 percent healthy,” Booker said, “but we have to keep pushing.”
Against the Clippers, it was Saric who replaced Oubre in the starting lineup. He will again Friday against Detroit. The Suns also have the option of starting Johnson, a move that would substitute more offense in place of Saric’s size.
None of that matters when it comes to the intangible force Oubre brings every night that quickly made him a leader in the locker room and fan favorite.
“I’ve been saying since Day One he’s kind of the heart of the team,” Ricky Rubio said. “He brings a lot, not just scoring. Momentum, good energy, on and off the court, he helps us a lot.”
The absence also creates another hole in a Suns’ rotation with several already. All season, Williams has cycled through backup guards on a nightly basis. The Suns have a few different looks at power forward, with Saric, Bridges and Ayton each filling in at different points in the year, but no consistently great option. Without Oubre, they will need the morass of backup guards to handle even more minutes and more consistency out of forwards Saric and Johnson. A thin teams gets even thinner with Oubre’s injury.
All this showed up as the Suns lost to the Clippers. It was a halfcourt game, and missed shots from role players like Saric, Baynes and Jevon Carter cost Phoenix.
Despite understanding what they’re losing in Oubre and living through this rocky season, the Suns remain within the playoff picture. They are just 4.5 games out heading into a bout with the Pistons, and the Grizzlies, currently holding onto the eighth seed, are in equally dire injury straits.
The road got a little tougher, but at least it’s still there. It’ not a cliff — yet.
“We still have the goal of making the playoffs and I think it’s definitely reachable,” Booker said, “but we’re going to have to string a few games together, lock in on all cylinders.”