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 Magic’s identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Philip: That is a really good question…the Magic have been searching for an identity it seems for the last five years and have not been able to find it. The Magic say they want to be a pass-first team but that has been easier said than done. I guess if the Magic have a defining style it is their ability to get up and down and out in transition. That has been something they have done when they are most successful. Of course, that has been few and far between. Losing Elfrid Payton has slowed the team down some — he was the best at pushing the pace.
The Magic are still kind of figuring themselves out, but this is not a good team. They have flashes of really good play on both ends, but they rarely last long. Then again, they have been known to play up and down to their competition. So maybe they lock in for a marquee opponent. But the Magic have been inconsistent everywhere and that explains why their record is what it is.
Which Magic player is going to be the one to watch in this match-up, and why?
Philip: I think the player to watch here is Aaron Gordon. He has played two games since returning from a sprained right hip flexor and has looked increasingly better with each outing. He finished Saturday’s game especially strong. He can have his big scoring nights obviously. But interestingly, he has developed a knack for moving the ball and passing in his two games back. He had seven assists against Philadelphia. Maybe some of this is a recognition that he does not quite have his conditioning or legs under him. Maybe this is some growth that is a little more permanent. That remains to be seen. But Gordon will want to increase that scoring load soon. This could be the game where he finally feels ready to break out after the injury.
Is there an under-the-radar Magic player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Philip: Aside from the potential Jonathan Isaac makes his long-awaited return to the lineup Monday, I would keep an eye out for Khem Birch. Magic fans absolutely love this guy. He defends the paint well and is solid around the basket. No one is running plays for him, but he is a grinder that does a lot of little things. The Magic are trying to find him more minutes, which is tough considering the team still has Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo eating up minutes. The other guy to watch is Mario Hezonja, who is experiencing a bit of a renaissance with consistent playing time. But that man is never under the radar.
What’s the biggest key to the Magic winning the game, in your opinion?
Philip: The biggest key for the Magic is to take punches and stick with the team’s system and rhythm. The Magic have struggled to stick with what works and using defense as a backstop in the two games since the All-Star Break. They lose their rhythm and everything seems to fall apart, which has to change. Orlando has to be focused defensively (obviously) and disciplined on that end. And they have to be willing and able to keep the ball moving to attack this Thunder defense. If they get caught dribbling too much and not moving the ball or taking quick shots, they could be in trouble. And things could get ugly.
Who wins, and why?
Philip: I think the Thunder wins. Even coming off an emotional game Saturday night, they are dialed-in and playing very well. The Magic do not have the firepower right now to keep up if Russell Westbrook wants to go into God Mode — which he always seems to want to do against Orlando. The Magic just are not healthy enough right now it seems to have the offensive firepower they would need. Or really even the defensive firepower. If Aaron Gordon looks healthier and they keep the ball moving, they can score with many teams. But the defense remains a huge question mark. This is not a team to be lax defensively against.
What is the Mavericks’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Lance: The Mavericks’ identity isn’t as clear as previous seasons. The team has a hint of wackiness to it. For example, a lineup consisting of J.J. Barea/Dennis Smith, Jr./Devin Harris/Dwight Powell/Dirk Nowitzki. This season’s Mavericks are not “young” by any means, but the most interesting player is, of course, rookie point guard Smith Jr. In a sense, the identity is DSJ. Many Mavericks fans on Twitter would lead you to believe he isn’t utilized enough. DSJ’s usage rating (28.8) leads the team, leaving the “Carlisle doesn’t use Dennis enough” narrative invalid. When DSJ is the focal point of the offense, he gives the team a shot at winning the game. The Mavericks have a 4-6 record when he scores 20 or more points. Only one of those losses was decided in a double-digit loss, against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
Long-range shots are the name of the game in this era of the NBA. Three-point baskets influence the game enough for the two best teams in the league to base their gameplan around it. With that said, the Mavericks are sixth in the league in 3-point shooting with 677 shots made from deep. Father Time is not defeated, but Dirk Nowitzki is giving it a fight to remember. Nowitzki leads the team in three-point shooting at an impressive 42 percent. At Nowitzki’s advanced basketball age this is truly a wonder.
Bench play is another aspect of the game the Mavericks seem to do well with. J.J. Barea is having quite the season. His three-point shooting (you see the theme here) is not necessarily the best of his career in terms of percentage, but when you look at his attempts per game it puts his improved shooting in perspective. Barea is shooting .359, just a smidge under 36 percent, with a career-high 4.6 attempts per game. This isn’t the spot-up shooting Barea of the past. His confidence to pull up from deep is as high as I can remember. Adding another dimension to his offensive game this late in his career is just another example of how great of a pro Barea is.
Defense is for sure not the Mavericks’ forte this season. Wesley Matthews is the best defender on the team—even so, his advanced numbers aren’t impressive. Noel was proposed to be of some help on that side the ball, but unfortunately, his time with the team has been more spectating than participating. The Mavericks rank 23rd in the league in opponent field goal percentage at 47 percent.
Rebounding is another area the Mavericks struggle. Teams have high success when playing the Mavericks. Opponents average 45 rebounds per game, leaving the Mavericks 28th in allowed rebounds. When they face teams with behemoths such as Steven Adams it spells a long night down low.
Which Mavericks player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Lance: I believe Dennis Smith, Jr. is the player to watch in this matchup. DSJ is not one to shy away from matchups involving star point guards, especially in clutch time. In the last five minutes versus the OKC Thunder, DSJ is a +11. DSJ is a perfect 2-2 from deep, which is isn’t one of his strengths. I think the most impressive fact of his clutch play is he has no turnovers in clutch time. For a player who’s been compared to Russell Westbrook frequently, the lack of turnovers in crucial moments is astonishing. I also think it’ll make for a great game if both Smith Jr. and Westbrook go at it the entire contest.
Is there an under-the-radar Mavericks player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Lance: Dwight Powell is the best player the Mavericks got in the Rajon Rondo trade. Despite this outstanding, yet true claim, Powell isn’t a household name. Powell’s production and contract cause a divide in the Mavericks’ fanbase: either you think he stinks or you think he’s just an inconsistent player. Lately, his production doesn’t make you glare at his contract in disbelief. In the last seven games, he is averaging 14 points and 7.8 rebounds. I want to see what Powell has to offer against Game of Thrones Adams.
What’s the biggest key to the Mavericks winning the game, in your opinion?
Lance: The Thunder’s big three is not to be taken lightly, but I think the underrated Steven Adams is the biggest threat. As mentioned earlier, the Mavericks are a poor rebounding team. One would assume Adams is averaging astronomical rebounding numbers when up against the Mavs. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He mustered a mere 5.5 rebounds in his last two appearances against the Mavericks. These numbers are encouraging for Dallas. However, his total body of work, and frankly, his actual body, needs to be respected. My keys to the game are to not allow Adams to keep plays alive for the Thunder and get him into foul trouble.
Who wins, and why?
Lance: The Mavericks have gotten the better of the Thunder in the last two meetings. Lately, the Mavericks and success go together as well as Isaiah Thomas and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are on a four-game losing streak, two of those losses from the Sacramento Kings and an embarrassing defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers. I can’t see the Mavericks outright taking the season series over a top-heavy Thunder roster. As far as in-game strategy is concerned, I think Steven Adams will be the last line of defense to spoil the Maverick’s season series win over the Thunder. If the Thunder attempt to incorporate some pick-and-roll actions it’ll cause for matchup problems for the less-than-stellar on defense Mavericks.
What is the Suns’s identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Dave: Hmmm. What are they good at? Very little. Somehow they are 8th in the league in offensive rebound rate, top-10 in total rebounds and 7th in getting to the line (free throw rate, per shot attempt). Other than that, they are in the bottom five in just about everything else, including dead last in three-point percentage despite having one of the best shooters in the league on the team (Booker). This is not a good team. The Suns have lost 8 straight, 13 of 14 and 18 of 21. Of course, one of those few wins was over the Thunder, so I’m not quite sure how to explain that.
Which Suns player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Dave: Well, Devin Booker is always good for 25 points, 4-5 assists and 4-5 rebounds per game. He’s such a good offensive player and shooter; it’s fun to watch. As far as constant motion and energy, Josh Jackson has been very good since the turn of the calendar year, good for 18 points and 6 rebounds. T.J. Warren will quietly put up 20+ points and you won’t even know how it happened. It just does. Other than that, Elfrid Payton might pop a triple-double on any given night.
Is there an under-the-radar Suns player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Dave: Well, ANY of the Suns might be “under the radar” as far as Thunder fans know. So any of Booker, Jackson, Payton or Warren could fit that bill. Other than those guys, maybe Dragan Bender has a good game. Maybe, maybe not. I wish I could predict it.
What’s the biggest key to the Suns winning the game, in your opinion?
Dave: Every single player playing his heart out and putting out maximum energy while getting lucky on making shots. Lots of shots. Oh, and somehow staying in front of their man on defense. If any of that happens, the Suns could surprise anyone. But don’t stress about it, Thunder fans.
Who wins, and why?
Dave: Thunder. Because Suns.
The Trail Blazers are our last team for this week, and we’re joined by Dan Marang, co-host of Blazers Outsiders on NBCS Northwest and host of the Blazers Edge podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @DMarang.
What is the Trail Blazers’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Dan: The biggest question facing the Trail Blazers this year was “what is their identity?” Here we are 60+ games into the season and the only identifying mark on this team is Damian Lillard. While teams tend to take on the traits of their best player, the overpowering aggression, determination and consistency from Lillard hasn’t translated up and down the roster for much of the season. C.J. McCollum, the NBA’s consistency metronome, struggled at the start the year and has only recently discovered his groove.
Jusuf Nurkić, the progenitor of “Nurk Fever” last season has labored his way to 14 points and 8 rebounds, but his inconsistency from the field and wavering effort on the defensive end have led to wildly inconsistent outings.
Maurice Harkless opened the season in the starting five and might have been the least productive starter in the entire league. A guy who last season peppered the stat sheet nightly and was relied upon for his energy, hustle plays, and easy baskets completely disappeared. Only recently has his level of play returned to anything reminiscent of what Portland was familiar with last season.
Outside of Lillard, forward Al-Farouq Aminu who is easily Portland’s best perimeter defender has demonstrated that his evolution into a consistent 40 percent three-point shooter is for real. Packed with his steady rebounding presence, Aminu has been the most consistent shining light for the Blazers.
With so much up in the air on a nightly basis the Blazers have struggled to carve out a niche that sticks. Last year they were a Top 10 offensive unit and a bottom third defensive team. This year those numbers have been flipped on their head a bit with a Top 10 defensive rating. Thanks to a recent offensive resurgence Portland has managed to revive an offensive unit that was languishing in the 20s to 16th in the league.
A team led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum shouldn’t ever be confused for a team that struggles on offense, yet for the better part of 50 games that was the case. While the defense is much improved over last season, the team still doesn’t know how it wants to play each night for long stretches. As long as that’s the case finding an identity for the Blazers will be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
Which Trail Blazers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Dan: Damian Lillard appears to have reached his final form. Every time someone questions him he finds a way to add something new to his game, ratcheting it up just a little bit more each time. He’s an anime character that started with a flaming fist super punch and now has the super-awesome-amazing-mega-ultra-fantastic-double-down-uppercut combo. With all of that being said, the Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook matchup hasn’t been the decider of games in these head to head meetings. Westbrook has been the leading scorer between the two of them, taking 7 of the 8 largest scoring outputs. The Thunder are 2-5 in the meetings.
The Blazers often deliver the unsung hero in this matchup. Recently and surprisingly that man has been Nurkić. One might think that a traditional center such as Nurkić would be ideal for Steven Adams to handle defensively—however, Nurkić has posted games of 20 points/8 rebounds, 25 points/8 rebounds, and 17 points/9 rebounds in his 3 games versus OKC as a Blazer. The Blazers are 3-0 in those meetings. So if you’re looking for a barometer for Portland’s success look no further than the play of the Bosnian Beast, Jusuf Nurkić.
Is there an under-the-radar Trail Blazers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Dan: Portland has a roster full of “under the radar” players. Shabazz Napier has emerged as not just a reliable threat off the bench, but one that is counted on nightly. Ed Davis may be the best backup big man in the league. But if you’re looking for the real curveball here, Pat Connaughton is your guy. (That was a baseball joke because Connaughton was a 4th round draft pick by the Baltimore Orioles, get it?)
Connaughton can be the guy that triggers and finishes open court plays for Portland, which is crucial to their success since they’re vastly limited in that area. Whether it’s cutting backdoor for the easy finish off a timely cut or soaring to the rim to catch and dunk an unbelievable alley-oop, or knocking down a momentum-building-or-killing 25-footer, Connaughton has been a fantastic surprise for Portland, essentially stepping in for the traded Allen Crabbe.
What’s the biggest key to the Trail Blazers winning the game, in your opinion?
Dan: The Blazers need to play Blazers basketball. That’s having the 1-2 punch of Lillard/McCollum do what they’ve been doing for the past 12 games, which is combining for over 52 points per on 48 plus percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent from three. Then they need to have Nurkić continue his interior dominance, inexplicably, over Steven Adams. And they need one or two other supporting players to have that quasi-breakout game. It sounds like a lot and it is because that’s the position that OKC puts them into.
Who wins, and why?
Dan: My heart says Portland but my mind says OKC. Westbrook has had an emotional meltdown in seemingly every matchup for the past few years in this series. Racking up technicals, forcing terrible shots, icing out teammates. If there was a way to kill a chance to win, he found it. He’s due to finally have a game that’s both productive for him and produces a win for the Thunder. The odds can’t be against him forever.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.