Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:06 AM

Monday's NBA Essentials

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Game of the Night - Boston at Denver (-1.5, 204.5), NBATV, 9:05 ET

This is normally the time of year where veteran teams look to take advantage of the younger ones by feasting on their lack of experience. The All-Star break is on the horizon, so it’s easy for guys who are still finding out why the season is so commonly referred to as a marathon to lose focus.

Boston opened the season with the sixth-youngest roster in the NBA and is the only division leader around the bottom 10. The loss of Gordon Hayward obviously changed the course of the season by putting second-year wing Jaylen Brown and rookie forward Jayson Tatum in heightened roles, but there’s always been a threat that the fountain of youth runs dry or needs fresher batteries.

The Celtics are 5-5 and it wouldn’t be surprising see a bit of a letdown continue. Tatum and fellow rookies Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis and Abdel Nader will be making their first visit to Denver as pros, closing out what will be the longest trip of their rookie season, exclusively on the West Coast at that. Boston lost at home to New Orleans, Philadelphia and lowly Orlando before departing, so things really hadn’t been going well even before this trip.

That made Saturday night’s 109-105 loss in Oakland a blessing instead of the latest setback. Al Horford called it “a step forward.”

The team with the Eastern Conference’s best record is talking about moral victories. There’s nothing wrong with it either, given that Boston has performed better than anyone could’ve envisioned, overachieving to this point.

The Celtics are experiencing some turbulence, which should answer your question as to how a team being seriously talked about as an NBA Finals contender can be a road underdog in Denver. Kyrie Irving was fantastic against the Warriors, scoring 37 points. Over his past four games, he’s averaging 32.5 points and shooting 59 percent from the field and 16-for-32 from 3-point range.

The Nuggets would be the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed if the playoffs started today, but they’ve won three straight, a season-high, all at home. The last two victims were the Knicks and Mavs, so this will be a step up. Denver barely beat Dallas after a sloppy stretch nearly buried the team as an 8-point favorite, forcing a frantic fourth-quarter comeback. The Nuggets are 7-4 in their last 11 games laying points, but are just 4-6-1 against the spread.

Nikola Jokic comes off his second triple-double of the season in the win over Dallas, but scored just 11 points and is mired in a shooting slump, coming in at a 40 percent clip from the field this month. After owning a lethal touch from the perimeter that made him impossible to defend over the season’s first two months, he’s shooting 26 percent from 3-point range over the last two, hitting just 12 of his last 48. He’s taking an average of four and his turnovers are up, so we’ll see if Horford’s defense can give the Celtics an edge.

Jokic was out of the lineup with a severe ankle sprain when these teams squared off on Dec. 13, so Boston will have to deal with his elite passing and high motor even if his shot continues to elude him. Horford missed the first meeting with a right knee bruise and Nuggets wing Will Barton sat out with a lower back bruise.

Denver point guard Jamal Murray was benched for a disciplinary issue on Saturday but had a big fourth quarter to help bail out the Mavs. His 28 points and 11 boards, combined with Gary Harris’ 36 points, kept the Nuggets in a 124-118 loss at TD Garden.

Kyrie Irving scored 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting, while Brown shot 9-for-12 and backup point guard Shane Larkin shot 6-for-6. The Celtics shot 59.5 percent and ended up being their best-shooting night and highest-scoring game of the season.

Denver also managed an opponent high that still hasn’t been eclipsed. That game obviously went over 208, but the under has prevailed in 14 of the Nuggets’ last 18 games. Boston has won five of seven in the series, winning two of the last three in the Mile-High City.

The Celtics could be short-handed since Marcus Smart remains out with a hand injury and fellow guard Terry Rozier is nursing an ankle sprain that could keep him out. Nuggets SF Wilson Chandler is questionable after leaving Saturday’s game due to a migraine headache.

Back-to-back dilemma

Joel Embiid was trolling Russell Westbrook on Instagram despite the 76ers Sunday night loss, calling the clip of his massive dunk over the Thunder star a “crime scene.” Before getting around to that bit of business, he was already posturing to participate in Monday’s contest in Milwaukee.

Embiid has yet to play in a back-to-back all season but feels he’s ready to begin doing so. That decision isn’t likely to be a game-time decision since it depends on how the All-Star center feels in the morning, and the presumption is that Philadelphia is finally ready to let him start participating normally after being extremely cautious with his knees since drafting him.

(Update - 3:30 p.m. ET: Embiid will sit out vs. Bucks)

“Obviously I really want to play,” he told CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato prior to the OKC loss. “I feel like that’s the missing part of my NBA career.”

Afterward, he reiterated his stance that he’s feeling great and in for the challenge, adding that if the team wants to win, he should be out there playing.

Embiid’s participation means we could get three of the most unique players in the game out on the floor for the first time, since Giannis Antetokounmpo missed last week’s meeting, a 116-94 rout in Philadelphia, resting a sore knee. It will be interesting to see whether he’ll participate, but he has played on the second night of the Bucks’ last three back-to-back situations.

Embiid and Simmons combined to shoot 19-for-32 and put up 45 points, 17 boards and 10 assists despite barely playing over 30 minutes apiece against the Bucks.

Milwaukee is 3-0 under interim head coach Joe Prunty after dominating the Bulls in Chicago on Sunday. Jabari Parker is due back later this week but won’t be a part of this one. Reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon is also questionable after missing the past few games due to a calf injury. These teams are currently running sixth and eighth in the Eastern Conference, separated by a single game. The under is 8-2 in the Bucks’ last 10 games, with the loss in Philly one of the anomalies.

Injury report

The Suns don't know if they'll have Devin Booker available against Memphis. He exited early in Friday night's loss to the Knicks with a hand injury and returned to play over 40 minutes in Sunday afternoon's loss in Houston. Post-game, he told reporters he'd injured his ribs and hip, requiring x-rays upon arriving in Memphis. Center Tyson Chandler (illness) returned but isn't a sure bet to play in this back-back, while Alex Len (ankle) has missed the past few games. The Suns are playing for a third time in four nights and could rest SF T.J. Warren, who has played through knee soreness.

The Grizzlies have multiple question marks too, since Tyreke Evans (ill), Deyonta Davis (knee) and Ben McLemore (knee) could be game-time decisins. JaMychal Green (ankle), James Ennis (calf) and Chandler Parsons (knee) have been ruled out.

Dallas guard J.J. Barea has an oblique injury that may keep him out of action against his old pals, the Heat, who he helped beat for a title in 2011. Dirk Nowitzki is the only other holdover from that team, while only Udonis Haslem remains for Miami. Backup Mavs guard Devin Harris remains in concussion protocol.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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