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 Spurs’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Matthew: I think their identity is difficult to figure out right now. They’ve been without their best player for nearly the entire season and Gregg Popovich has been trying a ton of different rotation combinations. The only thing I can confidently say is the system is the same. And actually, the way they’re moving the ball this year has been what’s kept them afloat; that, and LaMarcus Aldridge is having a great year. So, basically, their identity is their system, which it’s kind of always been, right?
Is there an under-the-radar Spurs player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Matthew: Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans. Both are lights-out shooters, just young and inexperienced. But Forbes has become a poor man’s Steph Curry—he can shoot, but he can also get by you and get into that floater range—and Bertans is a giant person who can knock down 3s from anywhere on the floor and is much more athletic than you’d think. They’re fun to watch when they’re on. But as I mentioned, young and inexperienced. No sure thing.
What’s the biggest key to the Spurs winning the game, in your opinion?
Matthew: Their defense hasn’t been nearly as good this season. Shocking, without Kawhi, I know. But if Aldridge is out, too, it’s going to be even worse. Again, a lot of this depends on LMA’s ankle. So at this point, given what we know, they’re going to have to hit a lot of shots.
What is the Nuggets’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Brendan: That’s the million dollar question surrounding the 2017-18 Nuggets—what exactly is this team’s identity? It’s never ideal to still be asking that question in March, but the Nuggets have grappled with an identity crisis all season long, at least on the offensive end. The Nuggets seemed to have gone away from the ever-potent “Jokic-ball” — a free-flowing, improvisational half court offense centered around Jokic’s unique ability to read the court at his position, and one that puts the ball and the decision making in his hands—after that same style of play unlocked one of the league’s most dangerous offenses last season. The ball doesn’t go through Jokic as much as it should, and Denver calls a lot of set plays for a team that appears to be at its best when playing loose and on the fly. They’ve struggled to integrate both Millsap and Jokic into the offense at the same time and it’s hurt them.They need a potent offense because their defense is abhorrent. Jokic simply lacks the proper conditioning and the athletic ability to defend high pick-and-rolls and it doesn’t help that Denver’s point guard, Jamal Murray, has had an indefensibly bad season on that end. Even with Millsap back, the Nuggets are a horrendous defensive squad—a problem that’s aggravated and magnified by their inability to protect the defensive glass.
Which Nuggets player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Brendan: In the absence of Gary Harris, it’s likely that Denver’s ultimate taxi player and utility man, Will Barton, will fill his spot at the starting shooting guard position. Barton has grown into a bit of a polarizing figure among the Nuggets fan base. He excites and energizes the crowd with his raw bucket-getting ability and unique swagger on the court, but he also incites frustration and deflates the crowd with his occasionally poor shot selection and his tendency to play hero ball down the stretch.“Good Barton” and “Bad Barton” aren’t different players at all. The approach never changes, but the results do vary. Denver is going to need “Good Barton” to show up against the Thunder because they’ll miss Harris’s steadying presence and unflappable demeanor on both ends of the court. Harris is Denver’s most consistent player and a win is hard to envision without an excellent game from Barton in his stead.
Is there an under-the-radar Nuggets player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Brendan: Torrey Craig might be a name to watch for Thunder fans. Craig is signed under a two-way contract but he’s played a key role for this Nuggets team at various points throughout the season. Craig’s length and tenacity give Denver some added versatility on the defensive end. He’s long, he’s switchable and he plays hungry. He makes for the perfect bench piece, but he’s started multiple games for the Nuggets this season. In their most recent victory over the Wizards, he came off the bench at a variety of positions and was a disruptive force on defense all night long, preventing Bradley Beal and others from making a proper impact on the game. Craig isn’t going to fill up the stat sheet but he can help this team when called upon. He may very well be called upon in this game.
What’s the biggest key to the Nuggets winning the game, in your opinion?
Brendan: Protecting the defensive glass is crucial for the Nuggets. Denver is one of the league’s best offensive rebounding teams, but they’re a bottom-10 squad when it comes to the other end of the floor. Allowing opportunities for second-chance points is brutal for any team, against any opponent, but the Nuggets leave themselves little room for error on that end with their abysmal initial defense. According to cleaningtheglass.com, the Thunder are the top-ranked team in the league when it comes to offensive rebounding percentage—that isn’t ideal for the Nuggets. Steven Adams is an absolute bully in this category and he presents a nightmare matchup for Denver. The Nuggets must control the glass and wrangle Adams in to have a shot at the win.
Who wins, and why?
Brendan: It’s hard to see the Nuggets making the playoffs at the moment, but they’re far from eliminated and they reek of desperation right now. The Thunder have plenty to play for and much to prove, but I see the Nuggets as the hungrier team and one that plays the Thunder confidently. They aren’t intimidated by the overwhelming talent, and they always play up against the former face of the franchise, Carmelo Anthony. Denver essentially needs a win to keep the season alive—that’s why I expect them to get one. Won’t come easy though, and it won’t come without a focused effort for four quarters—an area that’s plagued this team all season long.
For the New Orleans Pelicans, we talked to the man known only as Kumar, a contributor for Bourbon Street Shots, longtime moderator of Reddit’s /r/NBA community and co-host of the PeliCast podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @FearTheBrown.
What is the Pelicans’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at? Has any of that changed since Boogie went down?
Kumar: The Pelicans’ identity this year was coerced into a mid-season transformation after DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. After a rocky first few games post-Boogie, the Pelicans have reinvented themselves into a pace machine. The Pelicans lead the league in pace since Cousins got injured and look to find easy buckets in the open floor. This isn’t a team that will bury you from around the arc, but creative schemes and ball movement have resulted in the Pelicans hoisting up a top 10 all-time 2pt FG%. Anthony Davis has been the story of the Pelicans this season and has been leading the charge on both ends of the floor. However, Jrue Holiday, Ian Clark, E’twuan Moore, and even Rajon Rondo have been finding ways to contribute towards this playoffs push. One area they will have to watch out for in particular against the Thunder is the defensive glass. With Steven Adams making the league his playground on the offensive glass, the mediocre rebounding Pelicans will have to be extra vigilant when ending possessions.
Which Pelicans player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Kumar: The obvious answer to this question is Anthony Davis, who seems to routinely have monster nights against the Thunder. However, I’m going to go with Rajon Rondo. The Thunder will likely pay him no mind on the offensive end and force him to become a shooter. If Rondo can utilize that opportunity to attack the rim and break down the Thunder defense, the Pelicans should be able to get going offensively. Rondo also needs to set the tone early when it comes to pushing the pace as the Pelicans will need easy buckets in transition if they hope to pull out with a victory. I don’t anticipate Westbrook paying much attention to Rondo defensively so it will be imperative for Rondo to take advantage.
Is there an under-the-radar Pelicans player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Kumar: Right now that player is Ian Clark. Over the last 15 games, Clark is averaging just over 11 points per game off the bench. Opponents have the habit of chasing Clark off the 3-point line, and Clark has demonstrated an array of off-the-dribble moves to score. The Pelicans have relied on Clark to carry the bench offensively while Davis and Holiday are resting. Beyond scoring, Clark has solidified his role on the defensive end of the ball. While he doesn’t sport much size, Clark’s quickness and tenacity allow him to stay in front of most defenders and switch rather seamlessly. The Pelicans have frequently opted to close the game with Clark instead of Rondo due to his relative defensive aptitude. At the end of the day, Clark can be seen sprinting on every possession and it is part of what makes him such a valuable contributor on the Pelicans bench.
What’s the biggest key to the Pelicans winning the game, in your opinion?
Kumar: The Pelicans need to control turnovers and prevent the Thunder from operating in transition. I believe the Pelicans are outmatched athletically with the Thunder and need to ensure they aren’t gifting any unnecessary opportunities. If they can force the Thunder into being a half-court team, the Pelicans stand a good chance of slowing them down. Ultimately, I don’t think the half-court offense is a strong suit of the Thunder, and so it is critical the Pelicans don’t play to the Thunder’s strengths. Finally, I expect there to be a rebounding deficit in the Thunder’s favor due to their outstanding offensive rebounding. This deficit will translate to more shot attempts for the Thunder. The Pelicans absolutely cannot add to the shot differential by turning the ball over.
Who wins, and why?
Kumar: This is a tough one. Both teams are fighting for playoff spots and seeding. Both teams are in solid position to pursue homecourt. The Pelicans lead the league in clutch time wins this year and the Thunder have a losing record on the road. I think this will end up being a close game which the Pelicans will squeeze out 108-104.
Thanks to our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.