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Preview: Rolling Hornets look to avoid slip-up versus Thunder

Another trap game awaits.

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

What: Charlotte Hornets (25-20) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-30)

When: 7:00 PM EST

Where: Spectrum Center; Charlotte, N.C.

How to watch: Bally Sports Southeast, NBA League Pass

Injury report

CHA: PJ Washington: questionable (right hip contusion).

OKC: Derrick Favors: out (back); Kenrich Williams: out (health protocols).

This is easily the best basketball we’ve seen a Charlotte Hornets team play since the Kemba Walker days. Dating back to a Dec. 20 loss to Utah, the Hornets are 9-3 with a sixth-place defense and net rating. In that stretch, they’ve beaten Denver, Milwaukee (twice), Philadelphia, New York and Boston. As mentioned in the last game preview, the offense has dropped off in production (now 17th) but they do rank second in effective field goal percentage. Defense and efficiency seems to be the recipe.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have lost three games in-a-row and have been jostling for the lofty title of the worst offense in the NBA with the Magic and Rockets recently, however they are in the top-half of the league defensively. The Thunder are in the typical “aggressive, young, but still not very good” stage of their rebuild. We’ve seen the Hornets lose to teams in that stage before.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a top-20 scorer in the league at 22.5 points per game due in large part to his elite ability to penetrate the defense, carve out space with his change-of-pace athleticism and use his length expansive layup package to finish in traffic. SGA is the league-leader in drives per game, shooting 47.1 percent on 10.2 field goal attempts in that setting.

Oklahoma City’s 2021 draft class has been impressive; Josh Giddey leads the team in rebounds and assists per game, is in the top-five among rookies in total rebounds, assists and steals and attempts least one “what did I just watch?” type of pass every game. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl already looks to be a second-round steal. Aaron Wiggins, the 55th pick in the draft, has started 14 games and notched a 56.9 effective field goal percentage.

Very much like the matchup with Orlando a week ago, this is the granddaddy of all must-win trap games. Oklahoma City is decidedly not good, but they do play with a lot of effort defensively. If the Hornets don’t come out of the gates with similar energy and defensive effort, it could let the Thunder get confident, keep it close throughout and put themselves in position to win. Remember when SGA hit that pull-up one step inside the three-point line to beat the Hornets last season? Me neither.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be good for morale purposes if this is a duplicate of the Hornets’ performance against Orlando, but they’ve still won a ton of games lately. Every team loses a handful of games they shouldn’t. Let’s hope the Hornets can avoid doing that in a short span of time tonight.