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Struggling Thunder not taking Hornets for granted

Sports Xchange - Saturday 13th January, 2018

Teams struggling through seasons far below expectations hope to turn things around Saturday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Hornets meet in Charlotte, N.C.

The Thunder will be capping a two-game trip that began with a thud Wednesday night in a 104-88 thumping at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 16-point margin of defeat equaled the club's largest of the season.

The loss continued a roller-coaster season for the Thunder (22-20), which opened 8-12 as it attempted to get acclimated to newcomers Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

The team seemed to have things turned around when it went 12-3 in its next 15 games. But the Thunder has since lost five of seven, including three in a row.

The effort, which was lacking against one of the West's up-and-coming teams in Minnesota, might have been the Thunder's low point of the season.

"We've done it before, having a rough start, a rough patch in the season and then picking it up and playing at a high level," George noted. "We know we can get back to that. We just got to stick together, understand we're not playing well but that can change and we got to make it change."

One of Oklahoma City's three losses during its impressive 15-game run was a 116-103 stunner at home against Charlotte. The offensively challenged Hornets hit 53 percent of their shots that night and 13 of their 25 3-pointers en route to their third-highest point total in a road game this season.

It was Charlotte's third consecutive win over the Thunder in a series Oklahoma City has otherwise dominated. The Thunder had won 11 straight before the three-game skid.

The most surprising aspect of the Hornets' win at Oklahoma City was that it was their only triumph in a seven-game stretch.

They've won five of their last eight games. But as with the Thunder, just when things seemed to be trending in a positive direction, the Hornets dropped the opener of a three-game homestand, 115-111 to Dallas on Wednesday night.

Charlotte (16-24) bounced back with a 99-88 home win over Utah on Friday, but the game result took a back seat to better news the team received earlier in the day.

Coach Steve Clifford, who left the team on Dec. 6 for health reasons, announced he would return to his coaching duties starting Tuesday at practice.

For the first time, Clifford disclosed his absence was stress-related.

"It was really difficult (focusing with so much head pain)," he said of the demands of his job. "That's when I knew I had a problem."

Friday's win was anything but a calm experience for interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who watched his team prevail despite shooting 41 percent.

Kemba Walker led the way with 22 points despite missing nine of his 14 shots.

He also was extended 37 hard-fought minutes on the front end of a back-to-back.

Dwight Howard, meanwhile, was held to eight points on 2-for-9 shooting and 4-for-10 from the free-throw line. He did find time to lead all rebounders with 13.

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