Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander returns this week to the city where his NBA career first took flight, with a chance to cause a disruption for his former team.
Gilgeous-Alexander brings the Thunder to Los Angeles in order to face the Clippers with plenty on the line. The first of back-to-back games takes place Tuesday, with another meeting at L.A. on Thursday.
Oklahoma City is making a late-season push up the standings, winning seven of its past nine games in a burst that has the team thinking big. At the start of NBA play Monday, the Thunder (35-36) were in eighth place in the Western Conference and eligible for the play-in tournament.
The Clippers (38-34) are in fifth place, with a first-round spot secure at the moment, but the Thunder are just 2 1/2 games behind Los Angeles in the standings and are just one game behind the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks.
After missing the playoffs the past two seasons, Oklahoma City is showing that the moment is not too large.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who was traded from the Clippers to the Thunder in July of 2019, scored 40 points Sunday as Oklahoma City rallied for a 124-120 victory over the visiting Phoenix Suns. The Thunder trailed by as many as 15 points and by 12 at halftime before swinging the momentum.
"We kind of felt that it was now or never," said Gilgeous-Alexander, who helped guide an 18-2 run early in the fourth quarter that turned a 100-90 deficit into a 108-102 lead. "We either turned their water off or they were just gonna continue to score and they were gonna win the game. We knew the importance of this game and every game going forward for us this season."
Now come a pair of games not only with importance in the playoff chase, but with a personal connection for Gilgeous-Alexander.
That 2019 trade that altered each franchise, brought Paul George to the Clippers. George scored 29 points with nine rebounds as Los Angeles recovered from a surprise defeat to get past the Portland Trail Blazers 117-102 on the road Sunday.
George played just 15 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but had 19 points in 19 minutes of the second half.
"Honestly, when I get that chance to go to the bench, kind of reflect what's going on, see what's going on, I play a lot of it through my head," George said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Play the actions, the plays, how they're guarding me. And then sometimes I just gotta tell myself to slow down. Slow down, they'll give me the answers to the test."
The victory came one day after the Clippers were surprised 113-108 at home by the Orlando Magic on Saturday to end their four-game winning streak. Kawhi Leonard added 24 points Sunday for Los Angeles.
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue remained in Los Angeles with a non-COVID illness. Norman Powell (shoulder) has not played since March 2.
The Clippers need a pair of victories against the Thunder this week to even the season series. The teams also played a back-to-back in October at Oklahoma City, with the Thunder earning 108-94 and 118-110 victories. Gilgeous-Alexander combined for 57 points in those wins.
--Field Level Media