A month ago, the Charlotte Hornets had lost their seventh game in a row, losing to the Portland Trailblazers at home. They've only won six games since that game on November 26th, but over the past week have hit a stride, and take a four game winning streak into Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder.
The Thunder, like the other four teams Charlotte has faced during this current winning streak, do not have a winning record, but records mean little with OKC. The Thunder are 7-3 in the their last ten, thanks largely to the return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who both missed the start of the season due to injuries. Durant still isn't 100 percent, and he may not play tonight, but Westbrook has been in electric on offense, currently averaging 28.2 points and 7.1 assists per game. In yesterday's Christmas Day win against the San Antonio Spurs, he dropped 34 points and 11 assists. Even if Durant is out, handling Westbrook will be difficult.
Still, the Hornets are getting a bit of their swagger back, and look like the team from last year that beat teams will strong defense and good ball movement on offense. During this current winning streak, the Hornets are averaging 107.8 points per game, while only allowing 90. Defensively, they've worked more as a unit, and are trapping more effectively. Individually, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has done a great job of limiting the shots of players he's been assigned to. The team defense may have improved, but a lot of that starts with the energy MKG brings.
On the offensive end, Kemba Walker continues to put his poor shooting start behind him, averaging 23.8 points, and 6 assists per game, shooting 50 percent from the field, and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. He's been dangerous with the ball every time he's touched it, and it's causing problems for opposing defenses.
Al Jefferson is getting back into All-Star form as well. He's only averaging 18.3 points a game, but he's shooting 55 percent, which is well over his season average of 49.3 percent.
Both Walker and Jefferson are key for the Hornets against Oklahoma City. This is the most obvious statement of the year, but their success helps ease the pressure on the rest of the roster, and gets the role players open looks as the opposing team looks to lock down the two of them.
Defensively, the Thunder have been strong despite their record, currently ranking first in points allowed (95.9), second in opponents field goal percentage (42.6), and third in opponents 3-point percentage (31.0). The good news for the Hornets -- the last time they faced a team this strong on defense (the Memphis Grizzles), they scored 107 points. Of course they lost that game in overtime, but they still found ways to score despite how good Memphis can be defensively. Had Charlotte's defense been as good then as it has been the past four games, then maybe the result would've ended differently.
On offense, the Thunder aren't very good from beyond the arc, ranking 29th. Durant (if he plays), Anthony Morrow, and Serge Ibaka are the three to look out for from that range. Durant and Morrow are at or near 40 percent 3-point shooters, while Ibaka shoots a respectable 37.8 percent from three, and believe it or not has attempted 98 3-pointers this season, two more than Morrow.
The Thunder rebound well on both sides, and could be a menace for Charlotte, particularly on the offensive glass, which continues to cause for concern. Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins, and Ibaka all average at least two offensive rebounds a game. For comparisons sake, Bismack Biyombo is the only Hornets player that averages over two offensive boards per game.
Earning a victory tonight will not be easy whether Durant plays or not. Like Charlotte, the Thunder are trying to climb back into the playoff picture, and can't afford any losses, particularly ones at home against Eastern Conference opponents. Ultimately, a victory for Charlotte would be a big statement on how much they have improved lately.
Players to Watch:
Reggie Jackson: He started at point guard while Westbrook is out, and is currently averaging 16.3 points a game. Like Westbrook, he's a shoot first point guard, however his shooting percentages are much lower, though still a decent 42.9 percent. However, he shoots 89.3 percent from the foul line, so the Hornets should keep him off the line.
Steven Adams: The big man from New Zealand has carved out a nice niche with the Thunder, averaging 7.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, playing 24.8 minutes per game. He will likely have to guard Jefferson, so that will be a matchup to watch.
Marvin Williams: He's now playing off the bench, but Williams is starting to find an effective role, catching-and-shooting 3-pointers off of pick-and-pops, and against Milwaukee he was four of five from beyond the arc. He may be an expensive catch-and-shoot 3-point specialist, but the Hornets must continue to ride the 3-point shooting off the bench, and Williams is helping in that regard.