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After solid homestand, Thunder visit skidding Hornets

Dec 23, 2022; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) hangs on the basket after dunking against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second quarter at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Close games have been a regular theme with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The need to pull out more of those is bound to be the key to how the team fares.

Another chance to show if recent successes can be sustained comes against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C.

Oklahoma City won four of the final five games of a seven-game homestand, including avoiding a close game by pulling away to beat the San Antonio Spurs 130-114 on Tuesday night.

“We did a really good job in the fourth quarter really defending,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.

The Hornets have been in the opposite situation, coming off a six-game road trip on the West Coast. They went 2-4, capped by Tuesday night’s 110-105 loss at Golden State.

The game was tied at 101-101, but Charlotte coach Steve Clifford didn’t point to the finishing stretch as being as costly as how the team started in such a rut.

“The fourth quarter is never the most important quarter,” Clifford said. “A lot of ways, you can say it’s the first quarter, especially on the road. If you play from ahead, it’s a big advantage.”

“Just trying to be the aggressors,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Play with pace and play together and try to make the right decision from the get as soon as the ball tipped.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has led the Thunder in scoring in 11 of the last 12 games.

Gilgeous-Alexander also had four blocked shots in the San Antonio game.

“He has a care factor at that end of the floor,” Daigneault said. “We’ve had a good defense for a good 10-, 12-game stretch and he’s a big part of that. He plays a lot of minutes and he carries his weight at that end of the floor. That’s an area that we can continue to improve.”

The Thunder received 68 points from reserves in Tuesday night’s game.

“Great job, all those guys,” Daigneault said. “Good job of picking each other up. I thought top to bottom we were pretty good.”

Charlotte hasn’t contained many of the league’s second-tier teams. The Hornets allowed 65 first-half points to Golden State in a game in which Warriors standouts Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins didn’t play.

A 2-4 road trip for the Hornets means they should be desperate to make amends at home.

“I thought 3-3 would have been great,” Clifford said. “We still have two more good players to get back (from injuries in Cody Martin and Dennis Smith Jr.). It’s going to take us a little bit more time to get organized.”

The Hornets are trying to get all the parts aligned, something that has been troublesome with a rash of injuries. The encouraging part is that Gordon Hayward logged 37 minutes and LaMelo Ball played 35 minutes in Tuesday’s game.

“We’re playing every other day, so there’s not a lot of practice time,” Clifford said. “I think you can see the beginnings of what can be a good team. The reality is we’ve really had this group now for this trip and I think they understand that. The whole thing is we have to make progress.”

Oklahoma City guard Luguentz Dort wasn’t feeling at full strength Tuesday night so he played limited minutes. The Thunder used some different player combinations and Daigneault said he was happy with the adjustments.

Thursday night’s game marks just a one-game trip for the Thunder, who will be back home for their next two games. Oklahoma City lost its past three road matchups.

This is the beginning of a four-game homestand for the Hornets, who’ve lost their last five home games. This is their first home game since Dec. 16.

–Field Level Media