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Clippers, Thunder back in action after stellar first half to season

Clippers, Thunder back in action after stellar first half to season thumbnail
The present — and future — of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are tied together tightly.That won’t be going away anytime soon, with full draft-pick ramifications of the teams’

The present — and future — of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are tied together tightly.

That won’t be going away anytime soon, with full draft-pick ramifications of the teams’ 2019 trade that brought Paul George to the Clippers and sent Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and plenty of picks to the Thunder.

George and the Clippers take on Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder on Thursday in Oklahoma City as the teams return from the NBA All-Star break.

Though Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams, drafted by Oklahoma City in 2022 with a pick acquired in the 2019 trade, remain the centerpieces for the Thunder, they’ll also debut at least one new piece Thursday.

Gordon Hayward, who was acquired from Charlotte in a trade-deadline deal earlier this month, is expected to make his first appearance with Oklahoma City.

“I think the poise that they’ve showed for such young players is unique,” Hayward said of his new team. “Obviously, they have some guys, Shai and (Williams), who are able to take over a game by themselves, and that definitely helps. But everybody seems to do their job.

“They were rolling long before I got here, so I’m not trying to disrupt that.”

Hayward hasn’t played since Dec. 26, as he’s been dealing with a calf injury. But now he’s ready to go.

The Thunder have 28 games remaining before, barring a collapse, they make their first playoff appearance since 2020.

“That’s a lot of time, not only for integrating him, but also to understand we’ve had a nice season to this point, but it’s not even close to over,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “We’ve gotta keep our foot on the gas and continue to improve, and that includes everyone. It includes integrating him and (recently signed) Bismack (Biyombo), and it also includes continuing to build and continuing to grow and not resting on anything that we’ve already done.”

After a rough start to the season, the Clippers have turned things around, entering the break having won 19 of their last 24.

A big piece of the Clippers’ success has been the play of former Thunder guard James Harden, acquired in a Nov. 1 trade with Philadelphia.

Harden is shooting a career-best 42.1 percent from beyond the arc and is averaging 8.4 assists.

While Harden, George and Kawhi Leonard are leading the Clippers, it’ll be another former Thunder player who figures to draw the biggest reaction from the crowd.

Russell Westbrook consistently garners ovations on his returns to Oklahoma City, where he spent the first 11 seasons of his career.

“It’s like home for me,” Westbrook said in December. “I grew up here. They welcomed me and my family with open arms. They gave me everything they had every night, and I did the same.”

The current Thunder team is giving Harden flashbacks to the building process he underwent alongside Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

“It’s beautiful,” Harden said. “It’s been a long time as far as the rebuilding process, but I think it’s exciting.”

Thursday’s meeting is the last of three games between the teams this regular season.

The teams have split their first two meetings, and Oklahoma City has won five straight home games against the Clippers.