Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Denver at Miami, Altitude, 7:35 ET

The Miami Heat would have to be a major college basketball power in the city of Cincinnati to fumble away their place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After missing out last season due to a tiebreaker, the Heat will be part of the postseason picture despite entering the week as the No. 8 seed.

Miami is up 6. 5 games on Detroit and seven on Charlotte with just 12 games left, so the goal now is to earn the No. 3 seed. Toronto and Boston will be the top two in the conference, but the remaining six teams enter the week separated by just 3.5 games.

In the Western Conference, the margin between earning the No. 3 seed and finishing out of the mix in ninth and 10th is 6.5 games. Teams 5-through-7 currently have 40 wins and 30 losses, while the Timberwolves have slipped to No. 8 at 40-31.

With March Madness living up to billing through one of the craziest NCAA Tournaments ever, the NBA is set to follow suit by delivering a competitive final few weeks as teams jockey for playoff seeding. We may see some deft strategic tanking over the final few days, but for the most part, we’re going to see playoff contenders going at it to provide some excellent drama between now and April 11.

Tonight’s schedule also features the Cavs hosting the Bucks in a Central Division clash and the depleted Warriors looking to help keep San Antonio out of the West’s top eight, but this interconference matchup best captures what we’re likely to see going forward as teams play a desperate 48 minutes before moving on to the next city.

Denver is joined by the Clippers on the outside looking in at the moment in the Western Conference, just 1.5 games back of Minnesota. The Nuggets opened a defining seven-game road trip, by far their longest of the season, by taking a 101-94 loss in Memphis. Only one other team on the docket (Chicago) won’t make the playoffs, so Denver really got off poorly in losing to the Grizzlies.

Although there are no back-to-backs, Denver will visit the Bulls, Wizards, 76ers, Raptors and Thunder after departing South Florida, so it will fall behind the pace and become a Western Conference afterthought if it can’t put together a better effort than it managed on Saturday night.

The Grizzlies snapped a 19-game losing streak by holding the Nuggets to 36.8 percent shooting, taking advantage of the absence of shooting guard Gary Harris. Paul Millsap has largely struggled in his return to the lineup, which also led to a bad loss against the Lakers last week. Michael Malone has to figure out what the right buttons are with some urgency or his franchise will soon face the reality that they’ve wasted an opportunity to grow a talented, young conference via some playoff experience.

Miami just wrapped up a three-game road trip, salvaging it on Friday night with a 92-91 win over the Lakers. After losses in Portland and Sacramento, the Heat were underdogs at Staples but rallied in an ugly game when Goran Dragic took matters into his hands and hit a clutch runner and Isaiah Thomas’ subsequent game-winning fadeaway fell short.

Since trading for the currently injured Dwyane Wade, the Heat is 8-7 straight up but 10-3-1 against the number. Miami gets to finish the season with six of eight games at home, as stretch that begins tonight without Hassan Whiteside available either. He’s still nursing a hip issue and was downgraded to out on Sunday night. Denver’s Harris also remains out.

Rookie center Bam Adebayo and reserve power forward Kelly Olynyk have become major factors for the Heat with Whiteside out and will be tasked with attempting to slow Denver standout Nikola Jokic. He missed 10 of 15 shots against Marc Gasol and Memphis’ defense, but has been the driving force for his team, racking up triple-doubles over the past few months.

Denver won the only meeting between these teams 95-94 way back on Nov. 3 in what was only Miami’s second road game of the season. Millsap won it late after being fouled by James Johnson, but Dion Waiters missed a jumper to win it. He’s currently out for the season. Jokic got the better of Whiteside in that matchup, so we’ll see how he fares against Miami’s backup options.

As the Cavs turn

The Westgate LV Superbook has moved on to Toronto (6/5) as the new Eastern Conference favorite, just ahead of Cleveland (2/1) and Boston (5/2). We'll see how the numbers look when an update is released later today, but they couldn't improve much given that last week's wins came against the Suns and Bulls and they fell in Portland in the lone game against a playoff contender.

Larry Nance, Jr. (hamstring), Kyle Korver (foot) and Rodney Hood (back) are all unlikely to play, though Korver hasn't been ruled out. Meanwhile, Kevin Love's return from a broken hand is imminent and may come as soon as tonight. It will be interesting to see whether oddsmakers make the Raptors a slight favorite at the Q on Wednesday given all the injuries on the Cavs' roster - I would - but I suppose some of that hinges on who plays tonight and how well they perform against Milwaukee.

Tristan Thompson stepped on a heel and ended up with a significant ankle sprain that continues to keep him out, but the Cavs were installed as a 3-point favorite against Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks, who they are hoping to beat for the third time in four meetings. This could be a great spot for the visitors to make a statement by gaining a split of the season series, closing the gap in a tightly-contested Central Division now that Jabari Parker is back and emerging as a factor.

Indiana dropped out of first in the Central with consecutive losses and are now a half-game back, 2.5 up on the Bucks. The Pacers host the Lakers on Monday night and hope to welcome back forward Myles Turner from an ankle injury. Key backup Domantas Sabonis remains out with his ankle sprain, but Thaddeus Young is probable after being ill.

Injury Report

Most Spurs-Warriors meetings would lead any NBA preview, but tonight's clash is decidedly muted. Stephen Curry (ankle), Kevin Durant (ribs) and Klay Thompson (thumb) are all out for the defending champs, while Kawhi Leonard remains sidelined for San Antonio. We'll likely learn more this week about whether to expect Leonard for the postseason, but his team of doctors still haven't cleared his return even though San Antonio's medical staff has. The Spurs are a 6.5-point favorite against Draymond Green-led Golden State, which is currently featuring Quinn Cook and Nick Young in Splash Brother roles.

Charlotte suffered an embarrassing loss in New York on Saturday night, getting outscored 42-17 in the third quarter. It also lost Nicolas Batum to an achilles injury set to sideline him at Philadelphia. Batum couldn't physically get right for most of the season, which is one reason the Hornets will miss the playoffs. Cody Zeller is doubtful due to knee soreness.

The Bulls visit Madison Square Garden without their three largest building blocks, taking the cautious approach with Zach LaVine's knee, Lauri Markkanen's sore back and Kris Dunn's sprained toe. Courtney Lee missed the Hornets win to attend a funeral but is likely to return for the Knicks.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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