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Rookie magic not enough as Thunder drop to Hornets 113-102

With Oklahoma City absent of six players (three starters,) and Charlotte missing key components in Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball, and Malik Monk, Wednesday’s contest was meant to have some road bumps. What ensued was nothing of that essence, instead showcasing a flavorful 48 minutes which saw the Hornets sting the Thunder 113-102. Off the loss, Oklahoma City now rests on a four-game losing streak, marking their largest of the season. The team’s current 20-31 stance interlocks them with the Raptors for the seventh-best odds in the lottery. Charlotte flew forward in the Eastern standings with the win, passing the Atlanta Hawks (27-25) with a 26-24 record.

It has been a recurring theme this month for Oklahoma City to cough up an early deficit — that was no different Wednesday. The Thunder skidded out the gate misfiring on their first six shot attempts to sinking down an 8-0 void in the first four minutes. Despite the early shake-up, Aleksej Pokusevski remained unfazed by the early woes. The 19-year-old traversed all 94-feet of hardwood with bad intentions, colliding into Jaden McDaniels off an attempted one-handed poster, it was ruled a charge. Initially shaken up by the play, Poku took his time getting off the floor, but you wouldn’t have known on the next offensive drive, as he nailed a three. Oklahoma City found themselves down double-digits before the period’s midway point, but Poku was not done yet. After hitting one triple, the rookie cashed in on two near-identical left-wing triples in thirty seconds, locking crosshairs on his fourth triple minutes later for 12 quarter points. Even with Poku’s touch, the Thunder’s efforts simply were not enough, falling 32-29 at the frame’s closure. For Charlotte, their decision to gravitate toward the three (14-of-24 shots taken from downtown) paid off, stealing a 6-to-5 advantage in the category.

Oklahoma City’s newcomers Jaylen Hoard and Justin Robinson forked in 10 points in the second’s opening five minutes to claim the team’s first lead of the night. In regards to Hoard, the forward started the night 3-of-4 using his 6-foot-8 build to slip inside for layups, even one which garnered an and-one opportunity. Though the Thunder starters continued the same level of scrappiness upon insertion, they were too antsy with 11 turnovers in the first twenty-four. Although both teams shared similar shooting rates in the low-forties by half, it was the Hornets who prevailed up 56-51.

Just as you’d expect, Poku checked right into the game scoring seven of the Thunder’s first nine points in the frame, highlighting his patch by parting two Charlotte defenders finishing the play with a finger-roll layup. The Hornets had no answer for the Serbian Assassin however, their tenacity at finding open threes (5-of-14 3pt FG)  coupled with two goaltending violations set themselves up to eight with four to go — matching the Thunder stride for stride to close the frame up 85-77.

The Hornets struck the Thunder’s nerve yet again upon the fourth quarter’s onset, harvesting another 7-0 run to amass a 15-point lead, their largest lead to that point. Theo Maledon abused the Charlotte defense en route to 14 quarter points (5-of-8 FG), but the Hornets’ easy looks inside sealed the deal.

Aleksej Pokusevski showed a great deal of emotion Wednesday. At his hottest moment, he slammed the basketball off a Theo Maledon turnover, immediately being picked apart by Mark Daigneault on the sidelines.

“I was trying to speak fluent Serbia, and I fell a little short,” said Daigneault.

It was no surprise as to why Poku was so engaged in this contest — he set history. Poku became the youngest player in NBA history to hit seven triples (7-of-11 3pt FG) in a contest (19 years, 102 days) surpassing LaMelo Ball in that category by 68 days. Not only capture an NBA record, but he also stole a record from Theo Maledon — dialing the most threes hit by a Thunder rookie, clipping Maledon’s previous record of six.

Pokusevski’s flamethrower of a shot garnered the rookie a career-best 25 points (9-of-14 FG) while tacking on 9 rebounds and 4 assists.

“He [Pokusevski] was a major problem tonight. I mean, when he’s making shots like that, it’s very difficult, because he’s got that high release, gets it off pretty quick… He’s gonna be a handful for years to come,” said James Borrego, head coach of the Hornets.

Pokusevski, despite playing out of his mind, was not the only rookie to star Wednesday — enter, Theo Maledon.

Theo matched Poku’s point total with 25 (9-of-18 FG) on the game collecting 5 rebounds and 5 assists in his tenure. The rookie shot a subpar 3-of-10 from downtown this contest, so he opted to work inside for the grander portion of his points.

With Poku and Theo’s big night, they have set an under 20 scoring record for the second time in the last five days. The teenage tandem marked the first time a pair of teenage teammates dropped 20 on Friday, Wednesday night, they set the first occurrence of two teenage teammates to tally 25 in a game.

“We are really optimistic about those guys [Aleksej and Theo], the thing I’m most optimistic about is the approach. They’re learning how to be NBA players, learning how to live in America…both those guys have embraced those things,” said Daigneault.

Jaylen Hoard finished his second game in a Thunder uniform posting 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting. The 22-year-old dazzled in bits-and-pieces of his Oklahoma City Blue game, pinballing into defenders inside to create foul calls, etching a team-high 5 on the game.

Kenrich Williams shot a paltry 2-of-12 for the night; however, he formed still managed to be an effective player on the court. Williams ended Wednesday with 6 points, 9 rebounds, and a career-high 9 assists using drives to facilitate outside. What may be most inspiring about Williams since coming to Oklahoma City — his mindset. He embodied this immediately after the game, strolling back onto the court to practice his shot.

The Oklahoma City Thunder (20-31) will have little time to rest as they will face the Cleveland Cavaliers (18-32) to cap their back-to-back Thursday. On the surface, this may be another chicken fight — but with similar records, this game has serious future implications.

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