-- OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant returned three weeks ago after missing six weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot. One game later, so too did Russell Westbrook, who had missed four weeks with a fractured right hand.
The Thunder were on the road in New Orleans, and everything was back in its place. The feeling was that this game was their true opening night.
It didn't go as planned. The Pelicans shredded the Thunder 112-104, dropping Oklahoma City to 5-13 and making the road to playoff contention even longer and more winding in the tough Western Conference.
After the game, Westbrook was unfazed.
"How many games we got left? Sixty-something?" he said. "How many games we out of eighth place? Five, six? Not worried."
Westbrook's braggadocio proved to be prescient. In two weeks, the Thunder have mostly wiped away the gap between them and the No. 8 seed, ripping off eight consecutive wins as the teams in front of them stumbled. Their playoff odds have risen from 0.9 percent to 43.3 in a matter of days.
After months of worriment over whether they'd get into the playoffs, the question of the Thunder's season is now how high can they go.
They haven't made up all that ground yet. And with back-to-back losses to the Pelicans and Trail Blazers, they've fallen 2.5 games behind Phoenix (16-14) for the eighth spot.
It started with a nasty right ankle sprain for Durant that caused him to sit the second half of their streak-ending loss to the Golden State Warriors. Durant has missed the past three games, in which the Thunder have gone 1-2, with the only win a tight one over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Durant's most recent injury is a reminder of how fragile the Thunder's playoff hopes are. A hamstring tweak here or an ankle turn there and the Thunder could find themselves slipping back into the hole they so quickly crawled out of.
"You can't take winning for granted," Scott Brooks said. "Winning a game is hard. My first-year coach, Jimmy Lynam, used to always say that. Winning a game in this league is tough. And number one is health. Having your full roster to work with gives you the best chance to win."
The back of the West has cooled off some, and it doesn't look like 50 wins will be necessary anymore to make it in. Still: If the Thunder are to win 50, they need to go 37-16 from here on out; in other words, nearly 70 percent of their games.
Very doable, considering the Thunder have won about 72 percent of their games the past four seasons when Westbrook and Durant play.
"We're still in December," Brooks said. "We still have a lot of basketball left. We're not thinking about the playoffs. There's never been a team in NBA history that had an X, Y or Z by their name saying they're in the playoffs in December.
"I don't tell the players, 'Oh, guys we're a game out,' or 'We win tonight, we're the 8-seed.' I don't talk to the players that way. We just focus on what we have to do every day."
Despite the unexpected adjustment in short-term goals, the overarching mission remains the same in Oklahoma City. This is a team that has championship aspirations. The playoffs have been a rite of passage for the Thunder, a footnote in their runs to three of the past four Western Conference finals with one NBA Finals trip mixed in. They aren't interested in merely getting in.
Can they win it all as an 8-seed? It's never been done before.
The New York Knicks have gone the farthest, getting to the Finals in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season and losing to the San Antonio Spurs in five games. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets won the title as a 6-seed, the lowest to ever do so. On that team? Scott Brooks.
With 53 games to go, the finally healthy Thunder have more than enough time to not just claim eighth, but to climb higher. Regardless of where they fall in April -- eighth, six, fourth, whatever -- there isn't a team in the West eager to face them in a series, especially in the first round.
When Westbrook and Durant have been on the floor together this season, the Thunder are outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions, and are 8-2 overall (which includes the Warriors game, in which Durant played only a half and dropped 30 points in 18 minutes). Strong exterior pieces are blossoming around them -- Steven Adams has improved in his second season, Anthony Morrow has proved to be a solid signing and Reggie Jackson continues to grow.
The Thunder need just two things by the end of the season: a clean bill of health and a ticket to the party. Even with the nagging setbacks and agonizing recent results, the latter shouldn't be too much of a problem.