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.
What is the Celtics’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Keith: Boston has two identities. On offense, they are a ball movement team. They have a lot of good creators but are best when the ball moves and they take the best shot versus the first shot. On defense, they are also heavily movement based. The Celtics switch everything, but the real beauty in their defense remains with their ability to execute jump switches and switchbacks on the off-ball part of the defense. If you watch closely, you’ll see them do more switching off the ball than any team in the NBA.
Which Celtics player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Keith: Al Horford. How Horford goes is generally how the Celtics go. He’s always there defensively, but offense is his key. If he’s hitting shots and making plays, the Celtics win more often than not.
Is there an under-the-radar Celtics player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Keith: This would have been Daniel Theis but he’s out for the rest of the season after tearing a meniscus. So, that leaves this spot to Shane Larkin. With Marcus Smart out, Larkin is drawing a lot of the backup point guard minutes. He’s had a really solid season. Nothing spectacular but he doesn’t take anything off the table either. Brad Stevens often turns to him when he needs a spark off the bench.
What’s the biggest key to the Celtics winning the game, in your opinion?
Keith: Rebounding. Boston has improved as a rebounding team, mostly because of the simple fact that they are bigger than in recent years. In addition, Aron Baynes and Greg Monroe are terrific rebounders and eat up a lot of space inside. But the Thunder has one of, if not the best, guys on the offensive glass in Steven Adams. If he’s regularly creating second shots, the Celtics will struggle. If Boston can keep him off the glass, the defense should have a good night.
Who wins, and why?
Keith: The Celtics. Because the game is in Boston and the team should finally be somewhat healthier. If Jaylen Brown doesn’t play due to a lingering concussion, it could flip towards the Thunder. Boston might not have enough bigger wings to throw at Paul George without Brown. Even if Brown is back, look for a lot of minutes for Semi Ojeleye, because he has a lot of defensive value against bigger wing players.
What is the Heat’s identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
David: Miami’s identity begins, foremost and always, with defense. They play at a slow pace, control the tempo and try to disrupt what a team does well. Their system is built on running 3-point shooters off the line and them funneling them towards the rim-protecting Hassan Whiteside. Offensively, they milk every second of the shot clock and, while they would ideally create better looks that way, that’s not always the case. So what they do best seems vague but their effort is almost always high-level and they keep teams from shooting a lot of 3-point shots (3rd-fewest at 26.0 per game). What they don’t do well is manufacture easy shots and they have a tendency of allowing opponents to build double-digit leads early in games before furiously coming back and, more often than not, ultimately falling short.
Which Heat player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
David: Assuming he comes back from injury in time, I would assume that Josh Richardson would try to match up defensively against Russell Westbrook. Richardson has taken huge strides as a defender this year but has flown mostly under the radar. He uses his length to disrupt passing lanes and force turnovers, and even if he’s beaten off the dribble, can block shot attempts at the rim. As a scorer, he’s inconsistent, but seeing how J-Rich defends Westbrook should be interesting. If I had to pick another, how Whiteside defends Steven Adams in the pick-and-roll will be worth noting. Adams can also use his intelligence and physicality to shut down Whiteside, although if Hassan is fully-engaged (a rarity) I think he can win this battle of the bigs.
Is there an under-the-radar Heat player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
David: Other than Richardson, his fellow rookie from 2015 — Justise Winslow — has been impressive lately coming off the bench. As a defender, he’s playing at the same level he was as a rookie, when his only role was to provide elite defense. But he’s also improved as a shooter and playmaker, and will often handle the ball and run the second unit. I’m still not sold on Winslow ever evolving into a star but he’s solidified himself as a versatile role player that adds incredible value to this team.
What’s the biggest key to the Heat winning the game, in your opinion?
David: Controlling the pace. Not surprisingly, the Heat score an average of 95.7 points in their 33 wins this season. In their 30 losses, they score 110.2. Miami wins when they drag you into the mud and slow things down, getting the shots they want and contesting everything Oklahoma City does.
Who wins, and why?
David: At the time I’m writing this, Miami has lost nine straight road games. Given that, it almost seems guaranteed that they’ll lose to the Thunder. There really isn’t much of an explanation for why — this team has been so inconsistent that there doesn’t always seem to be a discernable pattern. They can look dominant on one night and then a chaotic mess the next. Since it’s a road game, I say the Thunder will win a close one and, in keeping with Miami’s bad habit, the Heat will cut it close enough to make it interesting.
What is the Blazers’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Tara: Familiarity. Since LaMarcus Aldridge left and the roster turned over, the Blazers have been a top-ten offense and a bottom-ten defense. When this season started they were suddenly getting in passing lanes, fighting through screens and holding opponents under 100 points in 11 of the first 20 games (compared with 2 of their first 20 games in 2016-17). Unfortunately, they struggled to find the bottom of the net. About all we could say was “consistently inconsistent.” In January the offense started to round back into form. Damian Lillard found another gear, and most importantly, everyone around him seemed to settle into their roles. I believe this transformation is due to a combination of dogged determination of Coach Stotts and the continuity of the last few seasons. Offseason moves by the front office have limited their options to bring in new talent, but the coaching staff has found ways to maximize the familiarity the players have with each other. You can see this in improved help defense, more alley-oops and other plays that rely on trust and timing, as well as a consistent belief that they can win any game.
Which Blazers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Tara: Damian Lillard. Most people regard him as a scorer and he certainly has shown that he’s an exciting shooter, averaging 26.8 points per game. He has an excellent range basically between the free throw line extended and the logo, especially on the left side. He can also create something out of nothing and never shies away from a difficult shot (55 eFG% with defender less than two feet away). However, he also creates opportunities for his teammates, either by drawing doubles, letting Shabazz or CJ handle the ball and making defenders chase him, or driving to the basket and kicking it out to Harkless or Aminu. (I will also mention that the battle between Steven Adams and any of the Blazers’ bigs including rookie Zach Collins — who is apparently afraid of no one — should be fun to watch, too.)
Is there an under-the-radar Blazers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Tara: Backup center “Phys” Ed Davis has become a folk hero here in Portland over the last six months. His counting stats of 5.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 0.5 assists in about 19 minutes are nice, but it is his hustle off the bench that Rip City loves. Every Ed Davis shift is a grind of rebounding and putback dunks (14.4% OReb and 28.6% DReb, both career highs). While he sticks close to the rim for scoring (his shot chart is a big orange blob on the left side of the paint) he will come out to the 3-point line for pick and rolls and handoffs. His unselfish play seems to be all about creating space for others to get shots and he’s there to clean up if they miss. Who wouldn’t want Ed Davis following them around all day to create opportunities and clean up their messes? Note too that he almost always comes in with rookie Zach Collins playing at the four. Collins has been learning on the job from Ed this year and you can see them communicating on the court. So everything that Ed is doing, he’s doing it while simultaneously mentoring a rookie during the game.
What’s the biggest key to the Blazers winning the game, in your opinion?
Tara: Focus. The Blazers have shown they can play defense, they just need their offense to show up. And even though the offense is their bread-and-butter, it has been the most unreliable element this season. Everyone needs to do their job offensively and not play outside of themselves. That sounds obvious, but it’s really been the key to this current winning streak. Jusuf Nurkic needs to take the shots he is given and dunk, rather than throwing up tricky lay-ins. Al-Farouq Aminu, whose defense has been fantastic all season, needs to shoot threes and not try and drive to the hoop. Maurice Harkless has been on a tear reading lanes and getting steals but he needs to hit his threes, as well. As long as everyone remembers what they are best at, the Blazers can win any game.
Who wins, and why?
Tara: Schedule-wise this is a pretty nice game for the Trail Blazers. It’s the first of a three-game road trip with a couple of days off after a tough set of home games against Houston and Boston. I don’t have to tell you how tight the playoff race in the west is, so if they lose even one game it can seriously impact the standings. I look for the Blazers to be rested and focused and prepared for Westbrook to exact revenge for the last three games. The Blazers’ defense seems to be built around letting one player go off while limiting all the rest. As a result, I would anticipate a huge game from either Paul George or Westbrook (actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Corey Brewer and I’m not kidding) and the Blazers limiting the rest of the team to below average scoring. This will be an excellent test for the Blazers and I think they sneak out of there with the win.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.