There are plenty of reasons why the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Western Conference
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has taken a significant step forward.
The Thunder's similarly named 2022 draft picks, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams, have rapidly improved late in the season
But another has been the continued development of fourth-year defensive standout Luguentz Dort.
Dort figures to be right in the middle of things once again when the Thunder take on the Indiana Pacers on Friday in Indianapolis
In Wednesday's win over Detroit, Dort won a late jump ball that ultimately led to Jalen Williams' game-winning shot at the buzzer.
"I think his physicality, his toughness, his resilience -- that stuff is contagious and it helps our team stick its chest out," Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. "And you really can't quantify that. But he brings that to us."
The Thunder (38-39) come into Friday's game 10th in the Western Conference, battling with five games remaining to stay in position to make the NBA play-in tournament while still having an outside chance to make the playoffs without having to win in a play-in situation
Dort is enjoying playing in high-stakes games for the first time since his rookie season, when he first made a name for himself as a lockdown defender after signing with the Thunder as an undrafted free agent
"We've worked so hard this season to be in this position today," Dort said.
The Thunder have been without Gilgeous-Alexander for the last two games after the All-Star sprained his left ankle in Sunday's win over Portland
Gilgeous-Alexander is questionable for Friday's game.
"It's hard to know how he's gonna respond," Daigneault said.
Oklahoma City's Lindy Waters has missed three consecutive games with plantar fasciitis.
While the Pacers (33-44) are 3 1/2 games out of the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference, their attention has turned toward the future after dropping four consecutive games and six of their last seven
Indiana's three leading scorers -- Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield -- have each missed time lately.
Turner has missed Indiana's last three with back soreness while Hield (non-COVID illness) and Haliburton (left elbow soreness) have missed the last two games.
The Pacers are in the midst of an eight-game stretch against teams in the top 10 in their conference
Playing meaningful games late in the season, even if the Pacers aren't making a playoff run, will help Indiana's young players, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said
"This is a good simulation of high-level regular-season basketball and it has a playoff feel to it as well," Carlisle said. "That helps."
Being without Haliburton, Turner and Hield has also opened up more playing time in those games for some of those young players.
"I think we're all just starting to learn each other and figure each other out," forward Jordan Nwora said. "We've only been with each other for so long. ... Moving forward, that's a big part of where we are right now, just learning together, growing together for the future."
The Thunder won the first meeting of the season 126-106 on Jan. 18 in Oklahoma City
--Field Level Media