Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Houston at Utah, FS-Southwest, 9:05 ET

After successfully holding off Denver’s comeback attempt in the fourth quarter last night, the team with the NBA’s best record made a short trip to Salt Lake City for a date with the Jazz, continuing a stretch that appears to be the Rockets’ most challenging of the season.

After defeating Minnesota at home coming out of the All-Star break, Houston won in Denver on Sunday, will play in Utah tonight and then squares off against the Clippers in L.A. on Wednesday. They’ll have a few days off before hosting Boston on March 3 and then hit the road for four more, stopping in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Toronto and Dallas. In all, the Rockets are navigating a 15-game stretch where 13 of the opponents are currently above .500, playing 10 of the games on the road.

They’re just at the beginning of the run and have managed to not only win the first few games, but cover them as well. Last night’s 119-114 win got dicey since the Nuggets were able to make it a one-possession game in the final minute, but Joe Johnson and Chris Paul nailed clutch free-throws to hold off Denver and simultaneously cover a spread that closed at -4.5.

Will Houston succumb to fatigue at some point? It’s likely that the franchise-record 22-game run they made a decade ago is safe, but the Rockets do have a lot going for them suggesting they can carry this success into March.

Despite not making a conventional move at the trade deadline, they got stronger earlier this month by adding waived veterans Johnson and Brandan Wright, both of whom got minutes in last night’s win in Denver. Trevor Ariza returned from a lengthy absence, which cuts into the minutes of wings P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, but keeps that frontcourt rotation fresh since Ryan Anderson, Nene and Tarik Black are all capable.

Eric Gordon hasn’t even played the last two games due to illness, so getting him back probably pushes Houston past Golden State as the deepest team in the league. It remains to be seen whether that will help combat fatigue as they try and come through this stretch in position to remain ahead of the Warriors for homecourt advantage in the Western Conference. The Rockets entered Monday’s action one half-game up in the race for the West’s top seed, even with the defending champs at a league-best 46 wins.

An argument can be made that of all the challenges that await between now and when the schedule eases back up in late March, tonight’s visit to Utah might be the toughest. For starters, it comes on the second night of a back-to-back. It was no picnic having to play in Denver’s altitude, and it appeared the team felt the strain down the stretch. The Nuggets won the fourth quarter 35-27 and would’ve likely ended Houston’s run if it hadn’t been for Harden’s brilliance.

The MVP favorite finished with 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, but did play a team-high 37 minutes. Will he feel the effects tonight in Salt Lake City? The Rockets have won five of eight on the second night of back-to-backs, though one of the losses came against the Warriors with Harden sidelined. Still, he’s shot just 41.4 percent in those games and went 6-for-19 against the Kings the last time he had to work on consecutive evenings.

There’s also the fact that the Jazz are blistering hot themselves, although a 100-81 Friday night home loss to Portland was a bit of a buzzkill. The setback ended Utah’s 11-game winning streak, so it remains to be seen whether hitting the pause button for the All-Star break killed off its groove. A win over the Mavs on Saturday night was rather sloppy, although prized rookie Donovan Mitchell continues to show no signs of wearing down, scoring 25 points.

The slam dunk champ might finally hit the wall in February, but he’s been getting stronger as the season has gone along and is 8-for-18 from 3-point range coming out of the break. Considering he went in on a 13-for-40 slump, if he’s rediscovered his stroke from the perimeter, Ben Simmons’ Rookie of the Year aspirations could play victim. Mitchell is indefensible if he’s got his jump shot working, and has Ricky Rubio back in the fold to play table-setter.

The Spanish point guard is still working his way back from a hip injury with just two games under his belt, but had averaged 27.7 points over the three games prior to getting hurt. If Rubio can get back to that level, Utah has plenty of ammunition to chase down Jimmy Butler-less Minnesota in the Northwest Division. Although the Jazz are currently bringing up the rear, they’re only 4.5 games back of first place entering tonight. They could make a statement by pulling off a home upset.

Houston was installed as a 2.5-point favorite, which marks on the 10th time all season that the Jazz will be getting points at home. Utah is 7-2 in those games, straight up and against the spread. The Rockets were one of the teams that managed to hold serve, winning 112-101 on Dec. 7. They’re looking for a 4-0 sweep of a team it may very well run into in the first round of the playoffs, and have won all three meetings thus far by double-digits. Each game also went over the posted total, but the teams haven’t seen each other since Dec. 18. We’ll see if the Jazz have improved enough to make a dent this time around.

Detroit at Toronto, FS-Detroit, 7:35

Outside of the night’s featured matchup, this is not a particularly attractive 10-game NBA card despite the volume. Since the Jazz are currently 10th in the Western Conference standings, there are no matchups between teams that both would qualify for the playoffs if they were to start today.

The only other game that’s even remotely close involves the East-leading Raptors, who would face No. 8-seed Miami. Detroit is running ninth and heavily invested in closing the gap to reach the postseason after acquiring Blake Griffin prior to the trade deadline.

After going on a run upon acquiring the five-time All-Star, Detroit has dropped five of six, which includes Sunday’s 114-98 loss in Charlotte that dropped the team to just 0-2 on the road since acquiring Griffin. Because they had a stretch of 13 home games in 15 dates between Jan. 19-Feb. 23, the Pistons now face a large portion of the next few weeks on the road, playing 13 of 16 outside their fancy new downtown arena. The Pistons haven’t covered a game in any of their last seven outings, winning just twice outright.

Detroit plays Toronto twice more this season, so finding a way to be productive tonight will likely be crucial to the team’s playoff aspirations. They just announced that point guard Reggie Jackson is in the closing stage of his rehab, beginning and shooting drills, but he’s still probably another week away. With important games against the Raptors, Bucks, Heat and Cavs on tap over the next 10 days, the Pistons are going to need Ish Smith and Jameer Nelson to hold down the fort to keep the season from really getting away from them.

We’ll see how they respond in a desperate situation in Toronto, but it doesn’t bode well that they’ve lost on the second of a back-to-back in blowout fashion the last two times they’ve taken the floor, although only one of those instances came with Griffin on board.

The Raptors lost to open play after All-Star, falling 122-119 in OT against Milwaukee. They’ve only lost consecutive games twice since December 1 and have covered six of their last eight.

Injury Report

Golden State star Stephen Curry is expected to make his lone appaearance at Madison Square Garden this season despite not flying with the team to New York. He didn't practice in Manhattan on Sunday night but is expected to be in the mix come game-time against the Knicks. Rookie forward Jordan Bell may also return from an ankle injury after missing the past few weeks.

Minnesota got "good" news regarding Jimmy Butler this weekend since he's expected to return from knee surgery before the playoffs, but won the first game without him at home against the Bulls 122-104 on Saturday night. Nemanja Bjelica has moved into the starting lineup, while Jamal Crawford is now likley in line for more touches and minutes off the bench. Sacramento has been better at home of late and has rookie point guard De'Aaron Fox back from a bout with conjunctivitis.

The Bulls will be visiitng Brooklyn in one of only two meetings featuring two definite non-playoff teams, so we'll see whether their matchup turns into a tank-fest. It's already rumored that Chicago guard Zach LaVine may get the night off. The Nets will be healthier than they've been all month since Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (groin) and Caris LeVert (knee) are set to rejoin the rotation for the first time in weeks.

Memphis won't have Tyreke Evans available due to a rib injury sufferend late last week that's likely to cost him significant time. The Grizzlies have already ruled out wings Wayne Selden and Chandler Parsons once again, so we'll see whether fatigue becomes a factor in Boston. The Celtics list center Aron Baynes as questionable due to an elbow issue, though his absence has allowed German rookie Daniel Theis to flourish in an enhanced role.

Lonzo Ball should play for the Lakers in Atlanta after resting on the second night of a back-to-back following his return to action on Friday night. The Hawks have ruled out backup point guard Malcolm Delaney (knee), which could be problematic since starter Dennis Schroder has been dealing with a back issue.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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