Welcome to “Fraternizing with the Enemy”, where each week we take a look at the upcoming games from the perspective of the fans and writers who watch them on a daily basis. We’ll review the team’s strengths and weaknesses, some players that might have an influence on the match-up, and what might be the result of the game.
For the Golden State Warriors, we’re joined by the notorious Sam Esfandiari, contributor for Warriors World. He’s also the cohost of the Light Years Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @samesfandiari.
What is the Warriors’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Sam: The Warriors identity is turning defense into offense. They led the NBA in blocks and steals last year and are towards the top in both this year. They love to cause mayhem and get out in transition.
The reality of their season is quite different, though. They are playing at 50 percent most games and coasting (in January I believe they were ranked 26th in defense). If I had to summarize the 2017-18 regular season Warriors it would be “flip the switch.” They go through the motions of their offense, they apply themselves “as needed” on defense, and they attempt to turn up the intensity when a game is in doubt. This is best displayed by them coming back from a 20-point deficit at halftime twice this season. No previous NBA team has ever done that.
Which Warriors player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Sam: Steph Curry. The Durant/Thunder rivalry goes without saying but I personally enjoy the match-up between the two point guards most would argue are the best in the NBA. Russ and Steph’s styles being so different also makes it a fun battle. Steph has gotten the better of Russ more times than not in the past few years, but Russ has had his moments too, most notably November 22nd.
Is there an under-the-radar Warriors player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Sam: Kevon Looney. Steven Adams is the Thunder player who gives Golden State the most issues. His size alone is a pain. Looney has quietly been one of the Warriors’ most productive bench players (in my opinion, only second to David West). He’s intelligent, he can switch onto perimeter players and he has a knack for the ball. If he can give GSW productive minutes versus Adams, he’ll lock his spot in the postseason rotation, as there will not be a harder matchup at the center position.
What’s the biggest key to the Warriors winning the game, in your opinion?
Sam: Turnovers. The Thunder force a ton of them and Golden State is prone to lazy passes. November’s game was a perfect example. Paul George and Russell Westbrook got in the passing lanes a ton and when they get out in transition there’s little hope for the defense.
Who wins, and why?
Sam: Golden State. The Warriors’ last game versus Oklahoma City was the last game of a road trip with a long layoff. Their effort was mediocre, and as a consequence the Thunder destroyed them. I would anticipate the team coming out with more focus and not wanting to lose two straight to the Thunder.
What is the Lakers’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Daman: The Lakers’ identity is their general competitive attitude on a nightly basis. For a team that is nowhere near .500 nor will be all season, they rarely get blown out. At this stage in their development, and with their lack of NBA-ready talent, that’s honestly all I could ask for. There was a little stretch of games where the Lakers simply didn’t show the same fight, but it looks like despite their bad loss to the Magic, I’m hoping they’re past it now.
Which Lakers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Daman: Julius Randle. Against a team like the Thunder, with an overwhelming talent advantage, a player like Julius Randle is capable of bringing the kind of energy to this Lakers team unlike any other player currently on the roster. When Randle is running the fast break with purpose, when he’s crashing the boards with a purpose, his energy spreads and elevates the team around him. For the Lakers to even hope to stick around, his energy will be one to keep an eye on.
Is there an under-the-radar Lakers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Daman: So I was going to say Lonzo Ball, who because of a very slow start and loudly bad shooting percentages (with nothing to say of some, let’s say, loud fatherly affection) has been completely written off unfairly by a large segment of the casual NBA fanbase. But because he is not playing, I will say my current biggest NBA Laker man crush is on Josh Hart. Kyle Kuzma has been correctly receiving praise for his work as a rookie drafted late in the first round, but I have almost appreciated Josh Hart’s (drafted 30th) game a little more. He plays within himself — I have seriously yet to see him overreach at any level. He defends HARD (watch him if he’s ever switched on to Carmelo Anthony or anybody who’s far bigger, he gets even more ferocious), and just plays a game with a maturity beyond his years. You may not have heard of him but he’s going to have a long career in the NBA.
What’s the biggest key to the Lakers winning the game, in your opinion?
Daman: Honestly, the Thunder would have to catch the collective flu. There really is nobody who can handle Russ or Paul George on the team currently, but if the Lakers can force tough, low percentage shots while getting as many easy transition buckets as possible, they could squeak one by. That would at least be the formula, because in a halfcourt match-up, especially without Lonzo, the Lakers have no shot against the Thunder defense.
Who wins, and why?
Daman: Thunder win and it’s not particularly close.
What is the Grizzlies’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Christian: When Memphis began the season with a league-best 6-1 record, they were a strong defensive club with an up-tempo offense — quicker than previous seasons.
However, with Mike Conley becoming sidelined with a nagging Achilles injury, the team lost their conductor. Though Marc Gasol can be a great player, Conley is really the guy who allows the Grizzlies to operate at a high level. Now with the team sitting at 18-34, the team does not have much of an identity. Last Wednesday, they literally sent their top player, Tyreke Evans, home as they are looking to trade him to a contending team.
It is all very strange in Grizz Nation right now. Young guys — rookies and sophomores — are playing a great deal of minutes, which is very much unlike Grizzly squads of the past. Marc Gasol is still an all-around threat at the five-spot, but he cannot do it all by himself.
It truly is “tank mode” for the Memphis Grizzlies, and Grizz fans hope they will, at the very least, be competitive. The Grizzlies have mostly been able to provide close finishes, albeit oftentimes in a losing effort. However, the real value lies in the development of their youth, especially Dillon Brooks, Ivan Rabb, Deyonta Davis, and Wayne Selden.
Which Grizzlies player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Christian: Marc Gasol is definitely the player to watch on Memphis’s side. He is typically a 20-point/10-rebound threat, and without many consistent options to look for scoring from, Big Spain is the focal point. Gasol at least provides a chance of hope at winning games.
Aside from the obvious, you can expect one of the trio of Dillon Brooks, Andrew Harrison, and Wayne Selden to score in double figures, especially if Gasol receives the double team in the post — he loves to pass to open teammates. It comes down to the youngsters finding the bottom of the hoop.
Is there an under-the-radar Grizzlies player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Christian: Being as Tyreke Evans is no longer traveling with the team, I will say Dillon Brooks. He is a second-round pick that has been making a name for himself ever since the season tipped off. He’s very athletic and has strength at his position. His jumper needs more consistency, but that will come with more experience. Brooks is learning on defense, but does a decent job for a rookie. He is definitely a Grizzly of the future, and a name Thunder fans should start to familiarize themselves with. He is the biggest steal of the second round right now.
What’s the biggest key to the Grizzlies winning the game, in your opinion?
Christian: The Memphis Grizzlies absolutely must contain Russell Westbrook if they want to snag a victory. Though you cannot really “contain” Russ, they need to slow him down from the start. The Grizz cannot provide open looks for OKC, otherwise, it will be a long and miserable night. It may be a tale of too many stars for Memphis to stop.
Who wins, and why?
Christian: It is hard for me to picture Memphis winning at OKC on Sunday. The Thunder is getting better as they form greater chemistry, and even with injuries, guys like Terrance Ferguson have stepped up. Memphis is without essential bodies — Conley, Evans, Chandler Parsons — that would make them a real threat to the new-look OKC Thunder. Next Tuesday’s rematch, being a home game for the Grizz, could be a different story with the home crowd behind them and maybe a few favorable bounces.
Thanks to all of our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.