Welcome to the newest column here on Daily Thunder, which we’re calling “Fraternizing with the Enemy.” Each week we’ll 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.
What is the Nets’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Kunal: The Nets have defined themselves with the motto “Brooklyn Grit.” They want to be the team that plays at 110 percent at all times, and some players have done just that. Their strengths lie in their perseverance, pesky defense, and fast pace. Not to mention, they have managed to find a way to win with their two best guards out for a majority of the season so far. Brooklyn shines in player development, as guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie have all become great players. However, they still struggle rebounding the ball and creating good shots. Often they settle for a three, especially when Allen Crabbe or Quincy Acy are on the floor.
Which Nets player is going to be the player to watch in this matchup, and why?
Kunal: Up until Friday, I would have said Hollis-Jefferson. He scored 17 points against the Thunder the last time both teams met and has improved greatly since then. But D’Angelo Russell came back from injury this past Friday. While he is not likely to play major minutes, it will be interesting to see what he does. Against the Heat, Russell tried to be the scorer that he was prior to the injury, but went 0-for-5, including 0-for-3 from long range. He was a more effective passer, dishing out two assists. If head coach Kenny Atkinson decides to play him for more than 15 minutes and Russell is back to his scoring ways, expect a big night for him. But that is a long shot since Atkinson wants Russell to take his time.
Is there an under-the-radar Nets player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Kunal: Brooklyn is made up of underrated players, so it is kind of hard to pick one. Spencer Dinwiddie has been perhaps the most underrated as he has turned his career trajectory from a bench mainstay to a pretty decent starting point guard. However, he has had some issues shooting the ball as of late. When he’s cold, he’s ice. But he has had some great performances against some of the league’s best point guards, including Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry. The Thunder should be a good test for him to see if he’s out of his slump.
What’s the biggest key to the Nets winning the game, in your opinion?
Kunal: The Nets need to be hot shooting the ball. Cold streaks and a lack of momentum kill their offense. If they can get good looks early, you are looking at a dangerous team. Especially if Dinwiddie and Crabbe are on point from downtown. Brooklyn will also need to protect the paint. Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are arguably at their deadliest when they can get easy looks inside. While Jarrett Allen is developing into a great defender down low, the other Nets bigs will need to step up considerably.
Who wins, and why?
Kunal: Both teams are coming into the game with momentum but the Thunder is coming in with considerably more. I think Oklahoma City takes the win over Brooklyn. The Thunder has pretty much been unstoppable in their last four games. While three of those four come against teams that definitely will not make the playoffs, OKC dropped 148 points on the Cavaliers. You don’t just dominate LeBron James and company and then lose to Brooklyn. But expect the game to be a competitive one. I would not be surprised if the Nets keep it close.
What is the Wizards’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Andrew: Well, um…Good question! Anyone who’s watched this team all year would have trouble coming up with a coherent answer on that one.
When everything clicks, the Wizards identity makes a lot of sense: they play fast to weaponize everything John Wall does well, they’ve surrounded him with shooters, Bradley Beal is great, Otto Porter is very good, Kelly Oubre has improved and become a quasi-fifth star, and Markieff Morris gives them the flexibility to go small and drive teams crazy. That’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. When things break down, which tends to happen every few games, Wall’s worst tendencies surface (bad jumpers, bad defense, ball dominance, not moving without the ball). Also on those nights: Beal doesn’t look quite ready to carry the offense, Oubre spaces out, Otto disappears, and Markieff Morris gives them subpar effort on both ends.
It’s been a really strange year, and I’m sure there are some elements of that paragraph that look familiar to Thunder fans. Both teams are top heavy and inconsistent, but then as soon as anyone feels comfortable writing them off, they will turn around and dominate a good team. The biggest difference between Washington and OKC is the difference between Steven Adams and Marcin Gortat. With Adams, there’s a cornerstone that will stabilize OKC’s defense regardless of what’s happening on offense. With Gortat, he’s slowed down a bit, and it’s become very difficult to build a great defense around him (or Markieff) (or Mahinmi), so that complicates things.
If I were to distill their identity into one coherent theory: Lots of talent, can beat anyone, uneven focus, and extremely shaky defense.
Which Wizards player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Andrew: Otto Porter. In general, if Otto plays well the Wizards become difficult to beat. Obviously, he can add another 18-20 points to whatever they get from Beal or Wall. But more importantly, if Otto’s scoring, it indicates that the ball is moving.
Wall’s best when he drives and kicks, usually to Otto on the perimeter, instead of settling for jumpers. When that doesn’t happen, Wall and Beal are usually dominating the ball and the Wizards become much easier to guard. So watch Otto. His game is usually a good acid test for the Wizards offense.
Is there an under-the-radar Wizards player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Andrew: Kelly Oubre. I’m not sure how many people outside D.C. are aware of the year that Oubre’s had, but he’s become a pretty reliable three-and-D wing. Think of him like a wavier version of Jaylen Brown. Additionally, Mike Scott has been really solid providing offense off the bench, and Tomas Satoransky is the most capable backup point guard John Wall’s ever had.
What’s the biggest key to the Wizards winning the game, in your opinion?
Andrew: Several keys here, because OKC is really good. Wall has to play his game — distribute first, score second — and avoid getting lost trying to go back and forth with Russ. Beal has to outscore Paul George. Markieff Morris has to show up, and once every few games Gortat will turn back the clock and look good — he’ll have to do that against Steven Adams for the Wizards to have any chance. OKC’s good enough to get their attention, so they will be focused (for a change), but the matchups will be tough.
Who wins, and why?
Andrew: OKC. The Wiz are in the middle of a tough stretch and they probably need to make a trade before the playoffs. I’m also a little terrified to dig deeper into what John Wall was talking about here.
For now, the Wiz are figuring things out, DC fans are going crazy, and it’s not pretty. Then again, OKC hasn’t been that much more dependable, so there’s always a chance it’ll be the Thunder who drive their fans insane Thursday night.
What is the Pistons’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Duncan: The Pistons are an amorphous mess without Reggie Jackson. They run a ton of DHOs but they aren’t very good at it, especially because they tend to lead to difficult long twos for Avery Bradley, and there isn’t much secondary action off the ball. They’re prone to long periods of stagnation and if Tobias Harris isn’t feeling it they have no reliable offense beyond Andre Drummond putbacks. They’re not terrible at much, but there’s really nothing they’re good at in their present form.
Which Pistons player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Duncan: Tobias Harris needs to be the offensive focal point, largely because there’s nobody else. However, he’s struggled with an increased offensive load in Reggie Jackson’s absence.
Is there an under-the-radar Pistons player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Duncan: Luke Kennard has been much maligned ever since being picked over Donovan Mitchell. There’s almost no doubt that Mitchell will be a star and would be exactly what the Pistons need right now, but Kennard has been great for the Pistons when he gets on the floor. He has been jerked around in the rotation and until fairly recently been a minor part of the offense, but in a world where Donovan Mitchell is not a consideration, Luke Kennard would stand on his own as an excellent NBA player. That’s how he should be viewed.
What’s the biggest key to the Pistons winning the game, in your opinion?
Duncan: Everything needs to click for the Pistons and the Thunder needs to be at its worst. The Pistons don’t execute anything well, their focus and effort waver and they are toothless offensively. The Pistons need a combination of tremendous fortune and utter disinterest from the Thunder to win this game.
Who wins, and why?
Duncan: The Thunder wins this one simply by virtue of being a better team with players who can score the ball. It won’t take much for them to beat a squad that should be considered a bottom 8-to-12 team in the NBA.
What is the Sixers’ identity this year? What are they good at, and what are they not so good at?
Christopher: Defense. Whenever Joel Embiid is on the floor, the Sixers are essentially among the best defensive teams in the country. Aside from Rudy Gobert, there isn’t another deterrent like him at the rim. Add in Ben Simmons’ sudden ascension to two-way stardom and Robert Covington’s defensive aptitude, and you have a team with the weapons needed to be an elite defensive unit for a long, long time. There are some weak points, but Brett Brown always has his team playing hard. That ability to lock things down whenever Joel is in the game is a big (and quite frankly, underrated) part of their success, especially in recent weeks.
As for their offensive identity, Embiid is equally as important. They’re at their best when he’s dealing effectively from the post, whether that be the short-to-mid-range pull-ups or reading double teams and making the right passes. He has been a little turnover-prone at times this season, but it’s a fixable issue that’s starting to get better. Their weakest point has been execution, especially in the third and fourth quarters. Aside from Simmons, who obviously can’t shoot, they don’t have another reliable halfcourt creator outside of T.J. McConnell. That’s why their best lineups come with McConnell on the floor, and part of the reason behind their knack for blowing big leads. The offense just finds ways to stagnate, especially when Embiid leaves the game or Simmons isn’t aggressive.
Which Sixers player is going to be the one to watch in this matchup, and why?
Christopher: I’d say Covington. He has been struggling with his shot lately but seemed to find his groove after going 5-8 from the field against Milwaukee. The key to his production is confidence in catch-and-shoot scenarios. He needs to have a quick trigger from deep, and he was way too hesitant earlier in the month. He’ll obviously be important defensively as well. He might end up spending time on all three members of OKC’s core, so his efforts will be key in slowing down the Thunder’s best players.
Is there an under-the-radar Sixers player that Thunder fans should be aware of?
Christopher: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been bad all season, but he kicked it up a notch against the Bucks. He stepped into the starting role with J.J. Redick and Jerryd Bayless out and scored 16 points, hitting some corner threes that he has struggled with for most of the year. Bayless will probably be back for this game, but I’d hope to see TLC starting again with a chance to keep things going. His length on defense could be really valuable against OKC’s bodies as well, so that’s another benefit to giving him some extended playing time and seeing if he can keep that momentum going.
What’s the biggest key to the Sixers winning the game, in your opinion?
Christopher: The third and fourth quarter. The Sixers almost always start strong then let other teams back into the game late, so execution down the stretch will be huge. They’ll have some star-caliber guys to contain in Westbrook and George, while I expect McConnell to play a big role off the bench yet again. If Simmons can make some plays late and Embiid executes in the post, the Sixers are capable of beating just about anybody. It’s about avoiding those youthful mistakes (turnovers) that have been way too common this year.
Who wins, and why?
Christopher: I’ll say the Sixers. They’ve been balling lately, winning six of their last seven entering the week — that one loss was to Boston in London, a game in which they held a 22-point lead. They’ve played better down the stretch and Embiid has been healthy, which is so vital to Philly’s success. When they have Embiid on the floor every night, like they have this month, it’s so much easier for them to find a rhythm and get things going on both sides of the ball. They have the personnel to defend OKC’s stars and are running hot coming into this week, so I’m leaning in their direction. They’re also 7-1 since getting blessed by the BASEDGOD, which obviously means something.
Thanks to all of our guests for their contributions to this week’s Fraternizing With the Enemy. Join us next week for another installment.