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.
For the Sacramento Kings, we’re pulling from a previous FWTE with Aaron Bruski, founder of Hoop-Ball.com and a Sacramento Kings writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronBruski. Here are a few excerpts from his previous Kings preview.
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.
What is the Hawks’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Brad: As a rule, the Hawks don’t have much of an identity this season other than being well-coached and (slightly) overachieving when compared to the roster makeup. As you no doubt realize, this isn’t an overly talented roster and the team’s peripherals reflect that. Atlanta really has only one legitimate strength in creating turnovers as a defense and, aside from that, simply being average in a few areas feels like a win. Defensively, this is the first time in the Mike Budenholzer era that the Hawks aren’t very good and, while some of that is personnel-driven, there are a few spots (Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince) in which consistent effort has been an issue.
Which Hawks player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Brad: John Collins. Dennis Schroder would be an obvious answer given the match-up with Russell Westbrook and, in short, Schroder having a big night would be a quick way to provide Atlanta with some optimism. Still, it seems like a stretch to think Schroder will be defending Westbrook all night and, beyond that, Collins is simply more fun. The rookie big man has been tremendous on a per-minute basis this season and, with Ersan Ilyasova out of the picture, Collins’ role has expanded to the starting lineup and more consistent playing time. Watching him battle with the likes of Steven Adams on the glass will be a treat.
Is there an under-the-radar Hawks player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Brad: Dewayne Dedmon. I’m tempted to say Kent Bazemore but, as a rule, players making $18 million a year probably aren’t considered “under the radar.” As for Dedmon, he has been quietly good this season to the point where there is an argument that he’s been Atlanta’s best player. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far but Dedmon’s newfound ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter, combined with quality rim protection, is very useful and the Hawks will need him to play well here.
What’s the biggest key to the Hawks winning the game, in your opinion?
Brad: Holding their own on the defensive glass. The Hawks have been putrid when it comes to defensive rebounding and, well, the Thunder are tremendous on the offensive glass. That is a bad recipe, but for the Hawks to have any chance at pulling an upset in this spot, they simply can’t get killed to the degree that it appears they will on paper.
Who wins, and why?
Brad: I can’t, in good conscience, pick the Hawks in this game, even at home. Atlanta has been much better within the friendly confines of Philips Arena, but if the Thunder plays a B-plus game, they should be able to hold serve. It isn’t impossible for the Hawks to win but Las Vegas will likely install OKC as a solid road favorite and there is a reason for that.
To cover the Los Angeles Clippers, we’re going to hear from Robert Flom, editor for Clips Nation, writer for Blazers Edge, and contributor for Ridiculous Upside. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichHomieFlom.
What is the Clippers’ identity this year, especially post-Blake trade? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Robert: The Clippers’ identity this season, particularly after the Blake Griffin trade, is a scrappy, hard-working team that shares the ball on offense. This Clippers team’s strongest attribute is heart, or never giving up. They have made several monumental comebacks this season, and never count themselves out of a game until the final whistle blows. Having watched Clippers teams over the past few years that haven’t quite had that same mental fortitude, this fight from the Clips is extremely refreshing. On a more tangible level, the Clippers have one of the most potent offenses in the NBA despite suffering several devastating injuries. Per NBA.com, they have the 8th best offense in the league, and their numbers in late February and early March (post-Blake) are even better. On the other hand, their defense has been mediocre most of the season and has trended toward awful in recent weeks. Teams are having no issue putting up 110+ points against them regularly, and there are long stretches where they appear incapable of generating individual stops, let alone stringing them together.
Which Clippers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Robert: The Clippers’ player to watch against the Thunder is Lou Williams. Sweet Lou is having an All-Star level season, even with his outside shooting falling off a cliff since the start of February. He leads the Clippers in points, assists, and three-pointers made and is by far their best shot creator. When he’s playing his best — scoring efficiently and creating easy shots for teammates — the Clippers can be very tough to beat. He will be even more important against the Thunder, as OKC has two players in Paul George and Steven Adams who match up well against key Clippers Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan. Those two will presumably have their hands full with their Thunder counterparts, leaving even more of the offensive responsibilities to Lou. With Andre Roberson out, and George most likely on Harris, the Thunder doesn’t have any players who can really deal with Sweet Lou. Lou will probably need to have a big game if the Clippers are to pull off the victory in Oklahoma City.
Is there an under-the-radar Clippers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Robert: I’m not sure Montrezl Harrell qualifies because he’s started receiving more recognition of late, but he’s been an absolute beast this season. He’s averaging 22.5 points and 9 rebounds per 36 minutes and is unstoppable around the rim. If Lou Williams wasn’t having the season he’s having, Harrell would certainly be getting some Sixth Man of the Year consideration, and for good reason. If Harrell is a little bit too well-known, I’d say Sindarius Thornwell is someone Thunder fans should be aware of. The second round rookie started off the season well, then began to struggle offensively and fell out of the rotation. With Avery Bradley and Danilo Gallinari injured, however, Thornwell has returned to the rotation recently and he’s been phenomenal. He’s a fantastic defensive player for a rookie, bringing quickness, length, and good instincts on that end. Don’t be surprised if he makes some an impact on this game off the bench.
What’s the biggest key to the Clippers winning the game, in your opinion?
Robert: The key to the Clippers winning this game is providing consistent effort on defense for all 48 minutes. When they turn the pressure up on defense (and Doc Rivers plays lineups that can actually defend), they aren’t horrible on that end, but when they’re bad, they’re bad. Slippage just can’t happen against an OKC team with offensive threats as potent as Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and the Clippers could quickly find themselves down 20 points if they don’t put forth effort on defense. While they have the ability to come back from such a deficit, and the Thunder has shown a proclivity to relax, the Clippers can’t afford to spot a team with such talent that big an edge. DeAndre Jordan has to contain Steven Adams as best as possible on the offensive glass to start. Tobias Harris, Wes Johnson, and Sindarius Thornwell will all get shots on Paul George, and collectively need to try to slow him down. And whoever gets the task of guarding Russ (Austin Rivers, Jawun Evans if healthy, and Thornwell) must try to force him into a jump-shooter. If the Clippers can get two of those three defensive duties done somewhat competently, they have a chance to win this.
Who wins, and why?
Robert: The Thunder is probably going to win this one. While the Clippers and Thunder have pretty similar records, and the Clippers have actually been the better team of late, the Clippers will be coming off an incredibly tough game the night before (against the Rockets), while the Thunder will have had two full days of rest. This is a schedule loss for the Clippers, though again, this is the type of game they’ve somehow been winning all season, so I wouldn’t rule them out entirely.
What is the Raptors’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
William: The big difference this season is that the Raptors are playing more of a system offense, which makes it much more difficult to stop them defensively. They move the ball well and constantly work drive-and-kick sequences for open threes. The only problem is that the Raptors are generally short on quality shooters, and things can get ugly when they’re cold. Their defense is always solid, though, so it’s hard to get a game off this team in any context.
Which Raptors player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
William: How DeMar DeRozan reacts to the pestering defense of Paul George will be the biggest determinant of this game. If DeRozan tries to force his offense by taking bad shots, there’s a real risk of the Thunder running it back the other way for easy buckets. But if DeRozan finds Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas or whoever starts at small forward (they’re rotating between OG Anunoby, Malcolm Miller, and Norman Powell) for open looks, then the Raptors should thrive.
Is there an under-the-radar Raptors player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
William: Everyone on the Raptors bench catches every opponent by surprise. They’re always locked in on both ends of the floor, and they’re incredibly energetic. Fred VanVleet, an undrafted point guard out of Wichita State, is the leader of the group. He’s pretty much a carbon copy of Kyle Lowry and it’s usually up to VanVleet to start runs for the group.
What’s the biggest key to the Raptors winning the game, in your opinion?
William: Defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. The Thunder can effectively collapse and block driving lanes if defense if the Raptors can’t hit from outside. Lowry, C.J. Miles and Ibaka need to make their open looks to keep the defense honest. Otherwise, the Raptors need to focus on finishing possessions. OKC is dangerous on the offensive glass and the Raptors are just middle of the pack in defensive rebounding.
Who wins, and why?
William: The Raptors have the best home record in the league, so I’ll give them the edge.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.