NBA Basketball

Thunder head home for key game against Hornets

Returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast road trip, the Oklahoma City Thunder face a critical two-game homestand in their pursuit of a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference race.

The Thunder will host the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference in back-to-back games, beginning with Tuesday's visit from the Charlotte Hornets.

Oklahoma City Thunder may have an uphill climb, however, as guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been ruled out of Tuesday's game due to a left ankle sprain.

Gilgeous-Alexander, 24, sports team-leading averages in points (31.3) and steals (1.7) to go along with 5.4 assists in 64 games (all starts) this season.

The Hornets have helped the Thunder's cause over the last two games, knocking off Dallas twice to help lift Oklahoma City ahead of the Mavericks for the 10th spot in the Western Conference.

The Thunder have been the outmanned but plucky underdog over the last few seasons as they've undergone a major rebuild.

Now, Oklahoma City finds itself on the other side of things as it looks to knock off some teams that aren't in serious contention for a playoff spot down the stretch.

The Thunder held off the Trail Blazers, 118-112, on Sunday in Portland to snap a two-game losing streak and remain in a play-in spot in the Western Conference.

Oklahoma City will face the Detroit Pistons following its meeting with Charlotte, and a sweep of the two-game set would put the Thunder (37-38) above .500 for the first time since early November.

"When guys get an opportunity, usually their energy level's high," Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey said. "It's a bit more loose with the way they play."

The Thunder have won nine of their last 13 games, and Luguentz Dort's defense has been a big reason for Oklahoma City's recent success.

Dort kept the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard from getting off a final shot in the Thunder's 101-100 win last Tuesday, then sealed Sunday's win when he ripped the ball from Portland's Shaedon Sharpe and dunked in the closing seconds.

"He just doesn't get screened very easily," Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. "He's not a speed athlete, but he's a ground athlete, and he's a fire hydrant physically. And so if you're going to generate an advantage against him in pick-and-roll, you have to lay a screen on him."

With six games to go, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Monday that he would rotate centers Kai Jones, Nick Richards and Mark Williams the rest of the way.

"I want all the young guys to be able to play," Clifford said. "Every third game, one of them is going to be sitting."

Clifford said Williams would be the odd-man out Tuesday, saying it made more sense to split minutes between just two of the three instead of all three.

"This way, they play more normal minutes where they have a chance to play better," Clifford said.

Williams had 15 points and 16 rebounds in Sunday's victory over the Mavericks.

Tuesday's game marks the second and final meeting of the season between the teams.

The Hornets (25-51) won the first contest 121-113 in Charlotte on Dec. 29. Charlotte has won four consecutive games in the all-time series.

The Thunder haven't beaten the Hornets in Oklahoma City since Nov. 23, 2018.

The Hornets' Terry Rozier (foot) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (shoulder) have each missed the last two games. Rozier will not play against the Thunder, while Oubre is questionable.

Oklahoma City was without Lindy Waters III in Sunday's win due to plantar fasciitis.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 28, 2023

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