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Preview: Hornets to host Thunder in home opener

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The first (regular season) basketball game at The Hive since mid-March... a long time coming

Oklahoma City Thunder v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Charlotte Hornets (0-1) at Oklahoma City Thunder (0-0)

When: 7:00 pm EST

Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.

How to watch: Fox Sports South(east), NBA League Pass

After falling to the Cavaliers in Cleveland in their season opener, the Charlotte Hornets will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first home game of the season, and the first game at the Spectrum Center since March 7 when the Hornets defeated the Houston Rockets.

I mention the Rockets because they are the reason that the Thunder have yet to play a game. The season opener between the two teams was postponed due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing that required quarantine within the Rockets team, which also saw James Harden receive a $50,000 fine for being “unavailable due to a violation of the Health and Safety Protocol,” per ESPN. Harden, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, rookies Jae’Sean Tate, KJ Martin and Mason Jones were all unavailable for the game, and with Chris Clemons and Ben McLeMore already away from the team due to injury, Houston did not have the eight available players required to play their game against the Thunder.

Oklahoma City had no virus issues themselves, so tonight’s contest should go smoothly. The Thunder went 1-2 in the pre-season, beating the Spurs and losing to Chicago twice. They’re surely “tanking” judging by their offseason fire sale and accumulation of draft assets, but their roster construction isn’t all that bad on the surface.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is poised to take another step towards being a perennial All-Star after being given the keys to the team — he should be one of the leading Most Improved Player candidates. The stabilizing presence of Al Horford, George Hill, Trevor Ariza and Mike Muscala will balance an otherwise incredibly young and inexperienced roster, providing leadership for Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokuševski, Lu Dort, Theo Maledon, Hamidou Diallo and Ty Jerome along with the rest of their ensemble of prospects.

Mark Daigneault was hired to replace Billy Donovan as Oklahoma City’s head coach, and it will be interesting to see how quickly/effectively he was able to instill his philosophies into the team. This pandemic-striken season has already affected the Thunder too, so he really hasn’t caught a break yet.

The Thunder’s injury report lists Ariza (personal reasons), Maledon and Jerome (ankle) as “day-to-day” at time of publish, though Jerome is out tonight. Only God knows if Ariza has reported to the team yet.

The Hornets actually played their season-opener, but it didn’t go very well. Cody Zeller fractured his left hand and will be out four-to-six weeks, and the team played pitiful defense. LaMelo Ball had a wholly forgettable debut and PJ Washington is still shaking the rust off. At least Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier played as well as their per-year salaries would suggest they should; Rozier’s 10 threes and 42 points were both career-highs, while Hayward posted 28 points, seven assists and four rebounds shooting 11-of-18 from the field. Devonte’ Graham had a 10-point 10-assist double-double to start the year, but it’s obvious that the rest of the Hornets supporting cast has to do more on both ends of the floor tonight.

Tonight’s biggest question will be how Charlotte defends without Zeller’s size on the interior. Bismack Biyombo is serviceable, but not as a big-minute starter. PJ Washington is transitioning to the role of backup center, but he’ll need to go through growing pains before he can sufficiently handle the load James Borrego has put on him.

Beyond Biz and PJ, the only options in the middle are rookies Vernon Carey Jr. and Nick Richards, neither of whom played much in the pre-season, nor are they ready to contribute nightly in the NBA — if either of them play, it will indicate that Borrego is comfortable with a trial-by-fire introduction to the league for his young big men, at least for now. The Hornets could go out and sign a free agent big man in the coming days/weeks, but that’s a topic for another article.

The injury report for the Hornets features Cody Zeller and Grant Riller (left knee), both of whom are listed as “out” this evening.

P.S. A lot of teams were wearing their city/statement edition uniforms yesterday for Christmas. I’m putting this energy out into the universe in hopes that maybe we see the Mint City uniforms tonight. Also, hopefully everyone had a good holiday season. It’s time for us to get back to work; sitting in a stationary position and overdosing on Hornets basketball.