Welcome to “Fraternizing with the Enemy”, where each week we look at the upcoming games from the perspective of the fans and writers who watch 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 Kings’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Aaron: That’s a loaded question in Sacramento. The identity is supposed to be that of a rebuilding team, developing youth and so on. What hasn’t lined up with that are the free agent acquisitions from last summer and Dave Joerger’s tendency to play veterans no matter how poorly they have played. Early in the season their on-court identity was to play through Zach Randolph but with all the moving pieces and a mismatched high post offense that hasn’t yielded many good looks — it’s been a typically up and (mostly) down Kings season.
Which Kings player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Aaron: For those that want to see pure upside, that’s De’Aaron Fox, who has freaky athleticism and is just now starting to get some freedom within the offense. For those that like a smoother, more subtle basketball prospect, direct your attention to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is a poor man’s C.J. McCollum and is also getting more freedom, himself. He has been the Kings’ best player this season.
Is there an under-the-radar Kings player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Aaron: Bogdan Bogdanovic is not a well-known name in casual NBA circles but chances are your readers know who he is, and the rookies Justin Jackson and Frank Mason were well-known college players, so that leaves Skal Labissiere as the Kings’ most mysterious prospect that has been mostly chilled this season. He may or may not play as he is recovering from a shoulder injury, but looking to the future, if he can ever bring the full package together, he has the ingredients — freaky length and solid touch on his jumper.
Whether it’s the chicken or the egg in terms of his awareness and the low minute totals, he makes the Kings interesting if the game ever slows down for him and he can handle the five slot.
What’s the biggest key to the Kings winning the game, in your opinion?
Aaron: They just have to play their best players and keep Zach Randolph off the floor as much as possible. The Thunder has too many athletes that can expose him, and that has been a recurring theme for the Kings this season. The Kings do have the ability to go small with Fox, Bogdanovic, Hield, Jackson/Vince Carter and then Kosta Koufos to try and keep Steven Adams from dominating the ballgame. Of course, Willie Cauley-Stein will play a big role both at center and at power forward, but Carmelo Anthony will definitely shoot a lot of 3-pointers over the top of him in that match-up. Carter is the better play there and knows all of Melo’s moves.
Who wins, and why?
Aaron: The Thunder might ease into the action after the All Star break and presumably the Kings will be a bit more hungry and maybe even energized by an internal pivot toward the youth, which with the way the Kings are run, will be telegraphed internally and externally before it happens. In that scenario, the torch is officially passed to the kids and that will actually make them better and tougher to handle for the Thunder. At least that’s the hope if you’re a Kings backer.
It doesn’t hurt that the Thunder will be gearing up for the following Saturday night matchup at Oracle, so this is a classic letdown spot for OKC. That said, they lost at the G1 Center earlier in the season and though they’ve since won on their home floor, Billy Donovan won’t have to work hard to remind the Thunder they took an L the last time they were there. I’ll take OKC for the win and the Kings against the spread. All bets are off if Randolph plays more than 22 minutes.
What is the Warriors’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Eric: This season, the Warriors added Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Jordan Bell, and brought back the rest of the team minus Ian Clark, Matt Barnes and James Michael McAdoo. Young has given Golden State an occasional bench scoring punch and energetic, if spacy, defense. Casspi on paper looks a perfect stretch four, but has refused to shoot 3-pointers this season. Jordan Bell has been an electric, shot-blocking, dunking, playmaking, athletic big with the overeager and trickable defense one expects from a rookie. He also has a sprained ankle so he probably won’t play vs OKC. And practically a new addition has been Kevon Looney. He’s finally grown into who GSW thought it was drafting two years ago: a long stable defender with some bounce.
The net result has been the bench remains low power on offense (at the bottom of the league in 3-pointers) and reliant on the elderly Shaun Livingston and David West to anchor a dinosaur defensive second unit. In the bigger picture, the younger generation (McCaw, Bell, Looney) hasn’t developed enough to give energy to the team, and the older generation looks like burned-out veterans with senioritis, leaving a regular season team that is coasting on talent and loses to the main challengers.
This year’s formula still mostly works against non-elite teams: survive the initial punch and get down big in the first quarter, have the dino defense second unit stabilize the game, try to get the game close at the half, make adjustments in the third and counter-attack with stops and transition scores and let Curry make some crazy shots. But this hasn’t worked against the best teams, and the old cheat-code lineup of Andre Iguodala plus four All-Stars has been bad this year, leaving the Warriors still tinkering with the closing lineups.
Which Warriors player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Eric: This is boring, but as Stephen Curry goes, so do the Warriors. KD is a special player and a historically elite scorer, but his strong play doesn’t tend to energize the rest of the team; he tends to carry the team. (Dean Oliver posted interesting confirmation stats on this.)
When Curry plays with force and makes the defense react to his threat, the game opens up for the whole team. When OKC can bang him and wrestle him out of his rhythm, as they have done, that turns Golden State into a motion offense that can be defended with switches and violence. When Curry lets the offense flow away from him, the Warriors gets bad shots from Draymond Green and Iguodala, and gets counter-attacked.
Is there an under-the-radar Warriors player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Eric: David West has quietly been the team’s rock. He organizes the second unit defense, runs the offense as a post passer, has been a good screener for KD or Curry on high scree-and-rolls, and has flashed a strangely effective mid-range jumper. He’s certainly the best center on the team and been increasingly playing crunch-time minutes. Steven Adams is not a player the Warriors have a great answer for but West is an important current option.
What’s the biggest key to the Warriors winning the game, in your opinion?
Eric: Defense. The W’s formula vs Westbrook has always been to turn him into a one-man attacker and let his inefficient side shine. This requires disciplined defense, which has not been on offer from them this year. During the Finals runs, Golden State has had a top three defense, but not this year. Durant and Green set the tone and organize the D and they have been careless. The switching defense has been sloppy with mistakes and miscommunication, and GSW’s transition defense has been particularly sad, losing players for threes and open layups.
If the Warriors can turn Westbrook and George into isolation scorers, they can get some stops and run out to easier scores. The OKC defense has been very impressive in the halfcourt and has gummed up the Warriors’ motion attack.
Who wins, and why?
Eric: To win, GSW needs
- Defensive communication, energy and precision
- More transition scores
- KD or Curry to put active pressure on the defense
- Westbrook or George or Anthony to have a bad shooting game
Without all four, I think OKC wrestles GSW in the half-court game, Westbrook plays within himself, and OKC wins the battle of points off turnovers and offensive rebounds, winning by double-digits. This is assuming OKC brings the laser focus and energy of the previous two match-ups. Thunder fans perhaps can explain better than me why OKC has been so inconsistent this year.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.