Thursday’s NBA Essentials

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Game of the Night - Oklahoma City at Denver (-1.5, 204.5), TNT, 10:35 ET

The Thunder responded to losing defensive stopper Andre Roberson with a vengeance. Fueled by the intensity of what’s known in NBA circles as the #PettyWarz, basically, the calling out of one another on social media or following up anything that happens on the floor by immediately referencing it there, Russell Westbrook, emerging king of said phenomenon, took down young Philadelphia stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and then stared them down as the seconds ticked down.

He owed them payback after they shot off at the mouth following an OT game in Philly.

Two nights later, Oklahoma City was losing in our nation’s capital to the John Wall-less Wizards. Westbrook shot 5-for-18, Carmelo Anthony came up woefully short on a game-tying attempt and shot 7-for-21 as the Thunder lost for the first time since Jan. 10, ending an eight-game winning streak.

They were flat in D.C., so we’ll see if there’s something that they can get up for in Denver since they face major challenges ahead with their top defender and standout glue guy done due to a ruptured patella tendon suffered this past weekend. Worse yet, the duo who has emerged most responsible for replacing Roberson in the lineup, rookie wing Terrance Ferguson and fourth-year forward Josh Huestis, combined for three points, nine boards and a number of miscues in losing to the Wizards.

A Northwest Division where three teams are separated by a game-and-a-half now that the hot Trail Blazers have closed on the Timberwolves and Thunder will likely be the first with three 30-win teams, so there’s really little room for error. Oklahoma City is even with Houston at 8-2 with the league’s best record over its last 10 games, but its road record of 11-14 is middle-of-the-road and it has just a 16-14 mark against the Western Conference.

The Thunder will play in Denver for the second time this season after having a five-game winning streak in the Mile-High city snapped in a 102-94 loss on Nov. 9. They beat the Nuggets in Oklahoma City on Dec. 18 by a single point as Westbrook scored 38 points to help overcome Paul George and Carmelo Anthony contributed only 12.

Only the Cavs have provided their fans a roller-coaster ride with the twists and turns OKC has supplied, so it will be interesting to see how they fare here since there will be 30 games remaining after the conclusion of this one. Before the All-Star break, the Thunder will play both the Lakers and Grizzlies twice apiece in addition to a visit to Golden State and a home date with Cleveland, so they’ll be in the spotlight plenty with the trade deadline also on the horizon.

If the postseason began today, Denver would be in the Warriors’ sights as the No. 8 seed, entering Thursday with a 26-25 mark, a half-game up on the Clippers. The Nuggets have been among the NBA’s worst road teams, but at Pepsi Center, are tied with OKC for the league’s seventh-best home record. Maybe Westbrook can get himself worked up over that.

Nikola Jokic followed up his second triple-double of the season in Saturday night’s win over Dallas with strong play and improved a shooting percentage that was hovering around 40 percent to a clip of 43 by shooting 14-for-28 in tight losses on back-to-back nights against the Celtics and Spurs. br />
Jokic was on a minutes restriction after being out of the lineup for weeks due to a severe ankle sprain when these teams squared off on Dec. 18, so he has played fewer than 30 in each of the games played against the Thunder this season, averaging 14 points and 10 boards. His matchup with Steven Adams will be among the night’s most compelling.

Denver got good news with shooting guard Gary Harris being upgraded to probable after dealing with a knee injury. He’s averaged 19.8 points over his last four games but is shooting under 41 percent and has averaged just 13.3 points in the two OKC games.

The Nuggets lost center Mason Plumlee to a calf strain that will cost him a week or two, so they’re starting Darrell Arthur, moving Jokic to the middle and offering emerging standout Trey Lyles more minutes off the bench. In OKC’s current state, still figuring out rotations after the loss of a key player, Denver’s depth in the city’s altitude will play a large role. We’ll see if Wilson Chandler is back in the mix after catching a DNP-CD as rookie Torrey Craig gets more time.

The Nuggets have been dreadful against the spread since Jan. 6, going 3-8-2. The under is 14-6 in Denver’s last 20. The struggles in D.C. snapped OKC’s run of five straight ‘overs’. The under has prevailed in both head-to-head meetings.

Blake representin' the D

After hearing what Mason cooks up on the P.A. to introduce newcomer Blake Griffin in what will likely be the highlight of my night, we all get to watch him debut for the Pistons against the Grizzlies.

There's no spread on the board as of the time of this writing -- only Toronto at Washington had a number -- but you can bet the Pistons will be the heaviest favorite they've been in 2018. The previous high had them laying 6 against the Nets. This shouldn't be double-digits, but with the Grizzlies playing on the second night of a back-to-back and a big crowd expected to greet the new guy, you can expect a large number

Detroit comes off its second-highest scoring output of the season, a 125-point outburst despite being short-handed aggainst the Cavs. It has only beaten San Antonio, Houston and Cleveland over its past eight home games and haven't covered as a home favorite sicne Dec. 26.

The Grizzlies are resting Tyreke Evans until they're able to get him traded, so he won't participate here. Unless they get JaMychal Green or James Ennis back, Memphis will be only about eight or nine-deep on the second night of a back-to-back.

The top teams in the Southeast Division going at it would normally get the "Game of the Night" tag, but even though the teams are only separated by four games, it's hard to get excited about their second meeting with Kawhi Leonard out. Fortunately, the teams meet on March 12 and April 1.

In the midst of a five-game homestand, San Antonio has defeated Denver and Sacramento after opening the stint with an embarrassing 97-78 loss to Philadelphia. LaMarcus Aldridge has had huge nights against the Rockets before, so by no means should you expect the Rockets to keep on rolling just by showing up. James Harden comes off the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history, but is missing Trevor Ariza (hamstring) and could be without Chris Paul (groin) and Eric Gordon (back), which means three of the team's top six could be out.

Injury report

Washington is playing without Wall for 6-to-8 weeks due to a recurring knee issue, which means Bradley Beal will be the focal point. He won't have to deal with Raptors backup point guard Fred Van Vleet, who has been on a tear of late but is away from the team after becoming a father to a baby girl. Delon Wright should get more time behind Kyle Lowry.

The Bucks are likely to be without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe due to an ankle injury that has him designated as doubtful. Malcolm Brogdon just returned to the lineup and should see the ball more. All eyes, however, will be on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler, who will square off for the second time after each getting into the 20s in a 102-96 Bucks home win on Dec. 28.

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