Welcome to “Fraternizing with the Enemy”, where each week we look at the upcoming games from the perspective of writers who cover them on a daily basis. We’ll review the each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, players that might have an influence on the match-up, and what might be the result of the game.
What is the Warriors’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Brady: For better and for worse, the Warriors’ identity has been “be more talented than the opponent.” They’ve coasted for much of the season, as reflected by a win total that is far lower than in any of the previous three years. They have a pretty poor first quarter net rating, then, after realizing at halftime that they might actually lose, turn things on to the tune of a historically great third quarter net rating. While the team certainly possesses elements of their championship identity from year’s past—excessive ball movement, switch-everything defense, and deadly shooting—this year they’ve primarily relied on their hoards of talent. As that talent is primarily on the offensive side of the ball, they excel at, well, scoring in any and all ways. They have three players who need to be the focal point of a team’s defense, and that’s a recipe for success. However, their defense has taken a sizable step backward, and they simply don’t have an interior presence to deal with the best big men in the league.
Which Warriors player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Brady: Klay Thompson. Thompson is working his way back into the team after a few weeks out with a fractured thumb. On offense, he’ll have to wear down Corey Brewer by running off screens and using his height to get his shot off at will and keep the offense spaced. On defense, he’ll be matched up against Russell Westbrook, which is an impossible task. Still, Thompson excels as an on-ball defender and has a good understanding of what shots to allow. If he can goad Westbrook into lots of long jumpers, the Warriors will be in good shape. If he can’t stay in front of Westbrook, well…it’s going to be a long night.
Is there an under-the-radar Warriors player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Brady: Kevon Looney has quietly emerged as Steve Kerr’s most trusted big man. The third-year player received next to no playing time through his first two seasons, and started the year with a slew of inactives and DNPs. Golden State lacks a big man who can hold strong on the block, but Looney is far and away their best big (not counting Draymond Green here) at defending the pick and roll, and is the only big who can hold his own when switched onto a perimeter player. Steven Adams is a disastrous matchup for the Warriors, but Looney is the one player who stands a chance to slow him down.
What’s the biggest key to the Warriors winning the game, in your opinion?
Brady: Staying engaged and active on defense. The Warriors have been terrific defensively in the postseason because they understand how to exploit mismatches, and force opponents to take low percentage shots. One of the defining moments of their mini-dynasty came in the 2015 playoffs when they essentially decided to not guard Tony Allen, and let him shoot all the open shots he could find. They’ll need to take that approach against the Thunder. For all of Oklahoma City’s offensive prowess, Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony are more than willing to take questionable shots. Golden State needs to stay active enough defensively that those players rely on their isolation jumpers, rather than attacking the rim and working the pick and roll.
Who wins, and why?
Brady: Oklahoma City. The Warriors are locked into the two-seed, while the Thunder is both fighting for playoff positioning and to stay in the playoffs. The Thunder simply has more to play for, and has already shown an ability to step up against the Warriors. Add in that Golden State is still trying to find their rhythm after myriad injuries and the Thunder is a safe pick here.
To cover the Houston Rockets, we’re going to hear from Eric Spyropoulos, founder, editor-in-chief and podcast host for the 94 Feet Report, as well as a writer for HoopsHabit. You can follow him on Twitter at @EricSpyrosNBA.
What is the Rockets’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Eric: Unlike last season, in which the Rockets were clearly an offensive-focused team that struggled on the defensive end, this season’s Rockets are much more balanced, and, quite frankly, elite on both ends of the floor. The additions of Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have given the Rockets several capable defenders that can also hit open three-pointers. As of this writing, the Rockets have the league’s first ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense (per Cleaning The Glass), highlighting their much-needed improvement on the defensive end. Of course, when it comes to their offensive identity, it’s still all about threes and shots at the rim. However, an interesting subplot of the Rockets’ season is their decreased pace. For the season, Houston is 14th in pace, but since January 25 (the team’s last 30 games), they are 25th in pace. Their offense is much more reliant on isolation play than last season, and James Harden and Paul have been two of, if not the best isolation players in the league this season.
Which Rockets player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Eric: Besides the obvious duo of Harden and Paul, Clint Capela is a player to watch in this matchup. Capela has improved significantly this season, averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while leading the league in effective field goal percentage (65.3 percent). However, Capela has struggled against Steven Adams and the Thunder, dating back to the first round matchup against the teams last season. Adams’s physicality and ability to attack the offensive glass has given Capela fits, and he has often found himself playing less against OKC in favor of the more physical Nené. However, Nené has played less and less recently in hopes of having him fully healthy and rested for the playoffs, and the Rockets need to see that Capela can hang with the physical big men he might match up with in the playoffs.
Is there an under-the-radar Rockets player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Eric: The player that could prove to be the most crucial component for the Rockets not only in this matchup but also in the playoffs is P.J. Tucker. Signed in the offseason for his rugged defense and capable three-point shooting, Tucker has been worth the signing for most of the season. There have been times where his shooting completely disappeared and other times in which his defense has been lacking. However, Tucker has been lights out from beyond the arc recently, as he shot 43.8% on threes in March after shooting 40 percent in February. The Rockets even inserted Tucker into the starting lineup in late February in order to improve defensively. The Rockets need Tucker to be a lockdown defender in the playoffs while hitting at least 36-37 percent of his threes, so look for Tucker’s physical defense on Carmelo Anthony and his shooting from the corner spots.
What’s the biggest key to the Rockets winning the game, in your opinion?
Eric: The biggest key might be the simplest one of all, in that the Rockets need to be healthy and engaged to have a chance of winning this game. Since Houston has already locked up the number one seed in the Western Conference, they have begun resting players in recent games. This may be the last regular season game in which the Rockets’ full squad plays, especially since this is a primetime Saturday night matchup that the league explicit wants teams to avoid resting. If the Rockets are healthy and engaged, they have a very good chance of getting a win due to the game being at home, the lack of Andre Roberson for the Thunder, and just how well Houston has been playing recently.
Who wins, and why?
Eric: Ultimately, I think the Thunder will pull out a win, simply because OKC needs the game more. By the time these two teams play, the Rockets will simply be going through the motions on the court and keeping their eye on the standings to figure out their first round matchup, which would start a week after this game. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City really needs this game for playoff seeding, so the team will likely be treating this as a “playoff game” against one of the best teams in the league. Many people have doubts about the Thunder in the playoffs, so OKC will likely want to prove them wrong and get a big win for its playoff seeding.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.