Thursday’s NBA Essentials

Editor's Note: NBA Money, Member and Totals leader Antony Dinero is 22-10 (68.8%, +1111) on guaranteed pay-only-if-you-win plays. He is 60-38-2 (61.2%, +1883) on over/under plays since Jan. 1, nailing 16 of his last 23. Don't miss out on more winners from him this basketball season on Click to win!

Game of the Night - Denver at Milwaukee, Fox Sports Wisconsin/Altitude, 8:05 ET

Denver is among five Western Conference teams enter the final day of action before the All-Star break with 26 losses. Minnesota, which hosts the Lakers in a game we’ll preview below, leads a tightly-packed Northwest Division but has lost 25 times. Current No. 3 seed San Antonio enters the weekend with 24 losses.

We’re going to see a wild finish as eight West teams hit All-Star knowing that they better recharge their batteries and come back ready to work, because only six are going to reach the postseason. That includes the Spurs, suddenly vulnerable due to Kawhi Leonard’s continued absence.

The teams are so tightly packed that a loss in Milwaukee would drop the Nuggets to ninth in the West, just one game up on the streaking Jazz and out of the current playoff picture. With a win, they would enter the week-long respite in sixth, owning a head-to-head tiebreaker on the Trail Blazers.

Despite being just 1.5 games up on Denver, Milwaukee ranks fifth in the East and could move just 1.5 games behind Cleveland for first place in the Central. The Bucks are among the NBA’s hottest teams, winning nine of 11. They’ve continued responding positively to the firing of Jason Kidd, which puts Joe Prunty in the driver’s seat to secure the gig on a full-time basis if Milwaukee continues to prosper.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has to be in the conversation on what appears to be a wide-open MVP race that will be decided over the next two months. The Greek Freak ranks behind only current favorite James Harden in scoring (27.6) and is one of only 11 players averaging double-digits in rebounding (10.4). The offense runs through him and he makes everyone around him better, so he’s likely looking at his first All-NBA First team nod come season’s end.

This matchup against Denver should be a good one given his size advantage over forwards Will Barton and Wilson Chandler. Trey Lyles has made a valuable contribution as a productive stretch four, but Paul Millsap’s continued absence probably hurts most against a team like the Bucks than anyone else. He’s still out a few more weeks, likely until early March, so the Nuggets will have to continue treading water without him.

They’ve played through Nikola Jokic nicely over the past few weeks and watched him deliver his third triple-double in a nine-game span in Tuesday’s 117-109 home win over San Antonio. He’s been fantastic since opening 2018 in a shooting slump, reversing his fortunes and currently at a clip of 52.5 percent for the month, which includes 50 percent from 3-point range. Denver is 5-1 in six February games thus far thanks to Jokic averaging 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists.

The Bucks won’t have long center John Henson due to a hamstring injury, but acquired Tyler Zeller from Brooklyn to make an immediate contribution in the middle. With Jabari Parker now back and looking spry after rehabbing post-knee surgery, Antetokounmpo can also slide to center, so one thing to monitor tonight will be head-to-head matchups where both players seemingly have advantages they can turn to in order to try and get the better of the other.

The Bucks and Nuggets split the season series in Jokic’s rookie season, but he logged triple-doubles in both meetings last year. Jokic averaged 16.5 points, 13 boards and 10.5 assists while shooting 56 percent. Denver won its last visit to Milwaukee on March 1, winning 110-98.

Jabari Parker didn’t participate in that game, but led the Bucks with 27 points and 11 rebounds in 121-117 loss at the Pepsi Center a month earlier. He’s gotten into five games since returning from his latest knee surgery of Feb. 2, but still hasn’t played more than 20 minutes or scored more than 12 points, shooting just 42 percent and making 1-for-6 from 3-point range. He finished a thunderous dunk from a standing position and still features that unique burst you typically wouldn’t associate with his frame, but he continues to work his way back.

Henson will be joined on the bench by injured reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (knee), backup guard Matthew Dellavedova (ankle) and stretch-four Mirza Teletovic (lung), so they’ve gone deeper into their bench, asking for contributions from veteran Jason Terry and Sterling Brown. Thon Maker and Tony Snell have joined Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe in the starting lineup.

Denver lists Mason Plumlee as out due to a calf injury, but has cleared guard Jamal Murray to play. The under has prevailed in 10 of the last 11 Bucks games. Milwaukee has won its last five at Bradley Center, but has only covered in two of those games.

The over is 8-2 over the Nuggets’ last 10. This is only their eighth road game in 2018. Denver is 1-6 outright and 2-3-1 against the number in those contests, snapping a six-game winless run in their Feb. 10 123-113 win in Phoenix.

L.A. Lakers at Minnesota, TNT, 9:05

The Timberwolves have hit a rough patch of late and will attempt to avoid heading to the All-Star break on a run of losses in four of five by taking care of business here.

Since matching a season-best five-game winning streak for the third time by defeating Portland to wrap up a perfect homestand that also included wins over New Orleans, Cleveland and OKC, the Wolves have gone just 6-9. All but one the wins in that span came at home, where Minnesota hadn’t lost since Dec. 16 before Tuesday’s 126-108 loss to Houston.

A 13-game winning streak in Minneapolis ended as the Wolves dropped their first home game in ’18, and it must be noted that the haven’t lost consecutive games at Target Center since Feb. 4-6 of last year.

This will be the third meeting of the season between them and the Lakers, but the first on an non-holiday. L.A. has suffered Christmas night (121-104) and New Year’s Day (114-96) losses at the hands of the Wolves, failing to cover each time. Standout rookie Lonzo Ball hasn’t played in either game and will be held out again tonight with a sore left knee.

Jason Hart has been starting at point guard with Ball out and Jordan Clarkson being traded to Cleveland.

Isaiah Thomas will come off the bench and had a strong debut in a Feb. 10 loss in Dallas, scoring 22 points in 31 minutes. He was ejected from Wednesday night’s 139-117 loss in New Orleans along with head coach Luke Walton after getting into it with Rajon Rondo in the first quarter, so he should have fresh legs to try and anchor the second unit alongside standout rookie Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers are actually 12-6 since Jan. 7 but have surrendered an average of 134.5 points over their last two losses. The over has prevailed in five straight games involving the Timberwolves.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA