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 matchup, and what might be the result of the game.
For the Washington Wizards, since the Thunder literally played them last week, we’ll just point you back to Andrew Sharp’s excellent breakdown from last week’s piece.
For the Denver Nuggets, we’re joined by Adam Mares, site manager for Denver Stiffs. He’s also the host of the Locked On Nuggets podcast, and you can find some of his previous work on Vice Sports and Nylon Calculus. You can follow him on Twitter at @Adam_Mares.
What is the Nuggets’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Adam: Sadly, this is a bit tougher to answer this season than it was last season. They spent a month building that identity around Paul Millsap only for him to get injured in early November. They spent the next couple of weeks getting back to last year’s style of high-powered offensive play around the playmaking of Nikola Jokic, but then he got hurt. Once Jokic returned, Malone had inexplicably moved him to PF alongside Mason Plumlee, and the team has yet to figure out an identity since then. So I’d say their identity is a team trying to figure out their identity amidst some bad injury luck.
Which Nuggets player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Adam: Russell Westbrook has owned the Nuggets for the last couple of seasons so I imagine his counterpart, Jamal Murray, will have the most important assignment. He’ll need to put pressure on Russ on the offensive end while trying to stay in front of him on the defensive end. If Denver has any hope of winning, they’ll have to to at least hang close at the point guard matchup.
Is there an under-the-radar Nuggets player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Adam: Trey Lyles is having a great year. He’s shooting 42 percent from behind the arc and scoring 11 points per game, 14 points per game since December 1. He provides the scoring punch off of the bench. At 6’10”, he’s a match-up nightmare most nights; however, the Thunder is one of the few teams that have the size and mobility to match up with him.
What’s the biggest key to the Nuggets winning the game, in your opinion?
Adam: For the Nuggets, the biggest key is always Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets have gone away from him a lot so far this season but when he gets touches, the offense rolls. Michael Malone has started to call fewer plays and trust Jokic’s playmaking and facilitating. The team’s 130 points against the Knicks might be a sign that they are getting their mojo back.
Who wins, and why?
Adam: The Thunder is the better team and Westbrook has been especially good against the Nuggets, so I’m going with the Thunder. Denver will also be on their third game in four nights and traveling back to Denver from San Antonio, so fatigue may also be a factor.
What is the Pelicans’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Mason: Tough question to start off with given the completely demoralizing Achilles injury for DeMarcus Cousins. We’re about to find out exactly what their identity is post-Cousins. The Pelicans are pretty good at having Anthony Davis. They’re also a good shooting team that has been in the top-10 in three-point percentage for most of the season. Defensively, they have struggled for most of the year (though they were looking like an improved unit on that end in January before Cousins went down). Now, defense and rebounding are both suddenly concerns.
Which Pelicans player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Mason: Jrue Holiday, since he’ll be tasked with the challenge of defending Russell Westbrook. Holiday has arguably been a top-10 defender in the league this season. No one can stop Russ, but if Jrue can make his life more difficult, it’ll help.
Is there an under-the-radar Pelicans player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Mason: Darius Miller. As of Monday, the Pelicans are 13-4 when Miller makes three or more 3-pointers and 14-18 otherwise. If he has the hot hand from deep, it opens up a lot of things for the Pels.
What’s the biggest key to the Pelicans winning the game, in your opinion?
Mason: Limiting second chances. Steven Adams is a monster on the glass at both ends (even if he isn’t pulling in the defensive board, he’s the guy doing the work to make it happen), and the Pelicans have an especially difficult task in front of them without Cousins. Omer Asik may see some important minutes if the rebounding battle gets too lopsided.
Who wins, and why?
Mason: It’s worth mentioning that the Pelicans beat the Thunder at home after Cousins got ejected in the third quarter, but I don’t see it happening in OKC. The Pelicans are too thin without Boogie, and the Thunder is simply the healthier, more talented team. I don’t think it’ll be a blowout, but I don’t think it’s a one or two-possession game, either.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, we’re joined by the mysterious man known only as Cranjis McBasketball, who’s been one of the best at providing play breakdowns for the Lakers and other teams this season. He’s the co-host of the Taking Charge podcast, writes for Forum Blue & Gold, Nylon Calculus and Real Ball Insiders, and does D1 college analytics and scouting. You can follow him on Twitter at @T1m_NBA.
What is the Lakers’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Cranjis: The Lakers are in a transition year this season. They’re not competing, but also for the first time in years Laker fans aren’t rooting for them to lose games because they don’t have their draft pick this season. This year is one of growth and setting a culture.
LA’s identity this season has been to play fast, play hard, and play defense. No team has a higher percentage of their possessions in transition than the Lakers, who has 19.8 percent of their offense generated on fast breaks. Luke Walton has also done an exceptional job of getting the team to compete every game. He’s instilled a culture and focus on defense, which has manifested itself in the Lakers’ 12th best defensive rating, a huge increase from the 28th, 29th, 30th, and 30th ranked defenses we’ve seen from LA the past four years.
There was a six-game stretch earlier in the season where Lonzo was injured, KCP was (literally) in jail for a couple games, and Brook Lopez missed some time. The team fell flat in those instances and were horrid defensively. But other than that stretch, the team has been a top-10 defensive team and has a knack for making games closer than they should be.
Where LA has plenty of room for growth is in their shooting and execution. Setting screens, running off of screens, and reading the defense during sets has been an up and down battle. The Lakers are also 30th at catching and shooting in terms of their efficiency (by PPP), 30th at pulling up, 30th from three-point land, 30th in total pick and roll offense (including pass-outs), 29th in half court efficiency, and are 26th in transition efficiency. The inexperienced players are getting better over time, as is Luke Walton, but this is still a young team with a below average scheme that is devoid of shooters and executes poorly.
Which Lakers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Cranjis: Lonzo should make his first appearance in the season series and his impact will likely be felt. LA will enjoy having a top-tier PG in terms of defense, passing, and rebounding back on the court. His shooting has also trended up steadily to the point where he’s a solid overall player and one that is able to impact the game positively in many different ways.
Is there an under-the-radar Lakers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Cranjis: Jordan Clarkson. He’s not usually an under-the-radar player, but he has been in this matchup so far in 2017-18. Clarkson is LA’s third leading scorer, but has been a combined 6/22 in the two games so far against the Thunder. Here is his shot chart against OKC:
And here is his shot chart on the season:
Clarkson is usually the key bench cog along with Kuzma that keep the Lakers’ bench afloat, always with the potential to explode any game in the scoring column. He’s been a non-factor against OKC so far, and I think it might continue.
Clarkson’s top three usages this season have been the pick and roll, spotting up, and isolation. Those three play types account for 66.84 percent of his total possessions. And he’s been matched up against a great defense, and specifically Raymond Felton for many of those minutes. Felton isn’t a good help defender, but his primary defense this season has been fantastic in those three areas. His defensive points per possession is better than 95 percent of the NBA defending pick and rolls, better than 97 percent defending spot ups, and better than 98 percent defending isolation. I wasn’t aware Felton was a defensive beast, but the data and the matchup make Clarkson’s poor performances make more sense, and lead me to believe he might have a tough third go at the Thunder defense. If he can’t produce efficiently, LA’s chances of winning the game decreases a fair amount. If he can, LA has a much better shot. If he goes off like he did recently three games in a row against Indiana (33 points), New York (29), and Boston (22), LA’s looking pretty good.
What’s the biggest key to the Lakers winning the game, in your opinion?
Cranjis: For the Lakers to win, they’ll need to be sound defensively. LA had their worst defensive performance of the year the first game against the Thunder. The defense was much improved for the second game, but LA conceded 21 offensive rebounds. A complete effort will be needed to keep LA in the game, and the Thunder hasn’t been a good offensive team overall this season, so this is an attainable goal.
Offensively, the Lakers will need to win themselves some extra opportunities through offensive rebounds. They’ve averaged 11 a game so far this year against OKC, so it can be done. LA will also need to convert in transition. They get there a ton, but have been one of the worst teams in terms of transition efficiency. They’ll also need to continue running the better offensive sets we’ve seen Walton’s offensive coordinator, Jesse Mermuys, pull out recently.
Who wins, and why?
Cranjis: I think the Thunder wins the game, but it ends up being closer than the first two. Lonzo’s return will be a bonus for the Lakers. They’ve also been playing better from an execution and schematic standpoint, and it’s resulted in winning basketball. Despite all of that, this is still a very poor match-up for LA and they’re outmatched from a talent standpoint. I expect the OKC defense to hold LA far below average offensively and get enough from their many options to win the game.
Thanks to all of our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.