Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Portland at L.A. Lakers, NBA TV, 10:35 ET

They’re giddy in Portland as we get ready for March Madness, and it has nothing to do with college basketball. At least this season’s version. Last year, Gonzaga made a run to the national championship game, so many of the city’s fans who may have been rooting for the school from Spokane that’s roughly six hours away got a look at Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman who exclusively came off the bench for the Bulldogs. He posted a double-double and blocked six shots in the loss to North Carolina and made the All-Tournament team in the NCAAs, turning pro and landing in the lottery.

Over the weekend, the Blazers started really cashing in.

Collins ran the floor and finished a plus-17 in making five of his six shots and playing great defense to emerge as the x-factor in Saturday’s 108-100 win over Oklahoma City. The No. 10 pick scored a career-high 12 points and ended up playing more minutes than starting center Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis, the primary big off the bench.

We’ll see if he can continue playing well as Portland visits the Lakers, which is one of just many themes to watch regarding Portland as we examine how seriously to take them after a fantastic start to March has them sitting third in the entire Western Conference.

This is the deepest into a season the Trail Blazers led the division since winning the Northwest in ’14-’15, but the lead is tenuous. Minnesota hovers just a half-game behind entering the week and OKC is just one game back and figures to improve down the stretch.

Denver, coming off a big win in Cleveland, is trying to make a big move itself after getting Paul Millsap’s services back, while Utah looms as the only last-place team in the NBA with a winning, entering the week with victories in eight of 10. Every other cellar-dweller is at least 20 games under .500.

While Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum still do the heavy lifting, quality depth has begun to develop. Shabazz Napier is making an impact as the backup point. Mo Harkless and Pat Connaughton have obviously improved. Then there’s Collins, who can really thrive as an x-factor if he’s able to duplicate last year’s big March in the pros.

He had eight points and six boards in 18 minutes against Sacramento, the franchise that drafted him for Portland, to close out February, so we’ll see if he’s truly ready to contribute after he slumped for most of the month, making just four of 24 shots prior to the All-Star break. The Blazers love his defense and believe his offensive struggles are entirely tied to confidence, so getting him going is essential to their success this season.

That makes this upcoming stretch essential for the Blazers, who have gotten to this point in the season relatively healthy. After facing the Lakers, Portland returns home for seven of the next eight between now and March 23, returning only to Staples Center for a date with the Clippers on March 18. The Warriors, Heat, Cavs, Rockets and Celtics will be among the teams that come through town, so we’re about to find out exactly what the Blazers are truly capable of.

It also makes picking up a win over the Lakers pretty important as they attempt to extend what is already a season-best six-game winning streak. The Blazers are playing so well that they won in Utah last week despite Lillard shooting 7-for-18 and beat the Thunder on Saturday night with him going 5-for-18.

L.A. is on a season-best five-game run, matching their longest stretch of success since 2010-11, which is the last time the team won at least six straight. The Lakers swept a four-game road trip by stealing a game in San Antonio that they trailed by 17 points. Lonzo Ball fueled the rally with a flurry of clutch 3-pointers and no longer has any minute restrictions upon his return from a knee issue.

Since January, only Houston has won more games than the Lakers, who have fared even better against the spread. L.A. has covered 10 of its past 12, part of an 18-6 run since Jan. 7. That’s a 75 percent clip for those of you averse to quick math.

Dealing Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. not only allowed the Lakers financial flexibility to dangle a pair of max-contracts out there this summer or next, but it also brought back a hungry, disrespected Isaiah Thomas in return. Healing fast after hip surgery, Thomas has put together his strongest work over the past two games, averaging 25 points and 6.5 assists in wins over the Heat and Spurs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has averaged the most minutes over the past six games, averaging 17 points and nine boards in that span.

Portland won the first two meetings between these teams and will be looking for a sweep of the season series, while the Lakers will be looking for a 10th consecutive win at Staples, having not lost at home since a Jan. 5 setback against the Hornets. The over is on a 7-0-1 run in Lakers games, while the under has prevailed in four of the last five involving the Trail Blazers.

As the Cavs turn

Cleveland suffered another loss over the weekend to the aforementioned Nuggets, falling at home 126-117 after again displaying an inability to get defensive stops. The Nuggets shot nearly 55 percent, overcoming another LeBron James triple-double.

J.R. Smith returned from his soup-throwing incident and led Cavs not named LeBron with 19 points, one of seven players who scored in double-figures. With James facilitating, offense isn't going to be the problem, but it doesn't appear that getting rid of Thomas was a cure-all for a poor defense.

Making matters worse, Tristan Thompson stepped on someone's heel and ended up with a significant ankle sprain that will now cost him time this week. Jeff Green is also sidelined with a back issue. Larry Nance Jr. should see his role increase, but it appears Cleveland will have to play small ball against a Pistons squad capable of punishing that via Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin running the floor.

The Pistons are in the midst of a stretch playing 11 of 14 outside Detroit and are 0-8 on the road since winning in Brooklyn on Jan. 10. They've covered in only one of those road losses and are on a 3-17 run against the spread.

After losing in Miami and Orlando, Stan Van Gundy's old stomping grounds, the Pistons are fading fast, falling three games behind Miami for the eighth and final available playoff spot in the East. The Cavs have seen their Central Division lead trimmed to a half-game and could fall out of first with a loss here and another Indiana home win over Milwaukee.

Injury Report

The Pacers are playing the Bucks for the second time in a four-day span, defeating them as a 3.5-point underdog in Milwaukee on Friday night. Khris Middleton, who scored 30 points in that loss, has been elevated to probable despite knee soreness, but backup center Tyler Zeller is questionable with a back issue. The Bucks pulled within 2.5 games of the Cavs in the Central with last night's big win over Philadelphia.

Kyrie Irving has been ruled out Boston's visit to Chicago as he rests a sore knee. The line instantly went down from nine points to seven. Marcus Smart will play despite a knee issue.

The Heat won't know the status of guards Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson due to quad injuries, which means Dwyane Wade should continue to log major minutes as the Heat hosts Devin Booker-led Phoenix. Wade hasn't played more than 26 minutes since returning to Miami, but has averaged over 21 points per game over his last three games. Tyson Chandler returned for the Suns yesterday and typically doesn't play back-to-backs, so the Heat may not see him. That would be fortunate, since rookie center Bam Adebayo may remain out due to a personal issue.

Memphis may not have center Marc Gasol available against his brother Pau's San Antonio Spurs, which could foil a duel between Spain's favorite sons since LaMarcus Aldridge may not play due to his own ankle injury. Monitor this throughout the day before making a play on this contest. The Grizzlies won't have G Tyreke Evans available again due to a rib injury and have also declared that point guards Mario Chalmers (hamstring) and Andrew Harrison (wrist) won't play. The Griz should have wing Wayne Selden and Chandler Parsons available again, but both are coming off injuries themselves.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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