Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM

Friday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - L.A. Clippers at Portland (-6, 218), ESPN 10:35 ET

The top two seeds in the Western Conference were decided when Houston and Golden State became locked into their spots but figuring out the remaining six positions requires a wild ride that continues tonight with two head-to-head duels between four of the eight teams battling for the vacancies.

Denver, currently 10th, visits Oklahoma City, which fell from its fourth-place perch with a loss to San Antonio last night. For the Nuggets, it feels like an elimination game.

Capping the night will be the current No. 3 seed, Portland, hosting the Clippers, who have crept up to ninth thanks to a three-game winning streak that sees them open the night one game behind Utah for the eighth final berth.

The sense of urgency should be high for both teams since the Trail Blazers come off a loss and are only 2.5 games up on the Thunder, though they have now secured the tie-breaker if the teams end up even atop the Northwest Division thanks to Sunday’s immense 108-105 road win at OKC.

What this becomes for the Western Conference’s biggest surprise is a test of just how much they have left in the tank. The Blazers are playing their fifth game in eight days and fell on the second night of a back-to-back without Damian Lillard in Memphis on Wednesday. They lost despite C.J. McCollum scoring 42 points after missing only nine of 25 shots.

Portland isn't sure if it will gets its All-Star back for this one after he left the team to witness the berth of his first son since he's now questionable after news broke that his 20-year-old half-brother was shot at a lmall late last night.

Paternity leave is no picnic given the mental grind of how hectic a birth can be, not to mention having to worry about a family member, so we'll see what frame of mind he's in if he plays, but Lillard should have his legs under him if he does go.

We’ll see whether the same can be said for his teammates since Jusuf Nurkic’s back has been an issue and Mo Harkless’ Wednesday knee surgery has significantly trimmed depth on the wing.

Since defeating the Clippers at Staples on March 18, the Blazers are just 2-3. They come off their longest road trip since the All-Star break and go right back out following Sunday’s rematch with the Grizzlies, squaring off with all three Texas-based teams before finishing up in Denver on April 9. Portland would love for its season finale on the 11th against Utah to mean absolutely nothing, but it can only gain such security by holding up over a taxing final stretch.

If misery loves company, the right partner is in town. The Clippers are playing for the 10th time in 16 days, eight of which will have been on the road by the time they finally head back to L.A. to finish with five of six at home. They’ve played in Houston, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Toronto. All of the teams that play in those cities are likely to be playoff bound. Portland too.

Of the Clippers’ remaining opponents, only the Lakers, who they finish up with April 11, are currently under .500. Getting back home with a fourth straight win would be provide a huge boost. Head coach Doc Rivers will be pulling out all the stops, which could include the return of wing Danilo Gallinari, who last played in the first game after the All-Star break. He fractured his hand on Feb. 22.

Point guard Milos Teodosic will remain out with a foot injury, so 23-year-old former G-League standout Tyrone Wallace will continue to receive a boost in minutes as a starter filling a role next to either Austin Rivers or Lou Williams. Rookies Sindarius Thornwell and C.J. Williams would continue to see time behind Wesley Johnson on the wing if Gallinari can’t return, which is why the Italian’s experience would be a major upgrade against a team that can fill it up from the perimeter.

The Clippers won the first meeting against the Blazers at the Moda Center 104-103, but have dropped the two more recent meetings at home. Harkless was instrumental in the March 18 win, so Portland will have to replace his production and has to be worried that he was part of a starting unit that score 98 of the team’s 122 points. Williams outscored Portland’s bench by himself, so it’s vital that Evan Tucker and Pat Connaughton produce on the wing.

L.A. has seen the under prevail in four straight games, while the low-side is 8-6 in Blazers games this month. The under is 2-1 in this season’s encounters. Portland has shot 29.3 percent from beyond the arc over its last five but shot 14-for-29 in the win at the Clips less than two weeks ago. Keeping that from happening again is likely the Clippers’ biggest concern, especially on the road.

The Trail Blazers have lost two straight at Moda Center after winning nine consecutive home games between Feb. 14-Mar. 17. The Clippers have the 10th-best road record in the NBA and have won in each of their last two visits to Portland.

The Celtics are playing only their second back-to-back since the All-Star break -- their first this entire month. They won a road back-to-back at Detroit and New York on Feb. 23-24 to improve to 7-4 on the second night of such situations this season. They've got two more remaining in April, with the next one coming in Milwaukee and Toronto next week, making it the most important of the season.

Injury Report

The 76ers will open life without Joel Embiid, who they're expected to be with until at least the beginning of the playoffs after orbital surgery on a fracture suffered when he collided with rookie Markell Fultz. Amir Johnson, who would likely see some extended time due to Embiid's absence, is questionable with the flu. We'll see who steps up for Philadelphia without the big man available. This could be where Ben Simmons wins or loses his Rookie of the Year Award.

Philly won't have to square off against Hawks point guards Dennis Schroder and Malcolm Delaney due to ankle injuries, which means athletic second-year guard Isaiah Taylor should get the bulk of the minutes at the controls.

Kevin Love is in concussion protocol after the nasty injury he suffered earlier this week, but the Cavs should get Kyle Korver back after he's been away from the team mourning his brother's death.

New Orleans hosts Cleveland in the first half of ESPN's nationally televised doubleheader but won't know if it will have guard Rajon Rondo back to help run the show since he's missed the last two games due to an injured wrist. The Pelicans do know they'll have Anthony Davis in there after he practiced and declared himself ready to go following an ankle sprain. Forward Solomon Hill, out most of the season, is back and should see time against LeBron James.

The Nuggets again won't have shooting guard Gary Harris for the huge clash with the Thunder, which is a major blow since he was targeting a Friday return from a knee injury that's cost him the last few games. Denver will miss his presence against Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

The Timberwolves are getting closer to getting Jimmy Bulter back from a knee injury, but will have to make due without him tonight against Memphis. Derrick Rose has provided a boost, but is dealing with an ankle issue and may not be available against Memphis.

Phoenix is again unlikely to get back Devin Booker from his hand injury and has already ruled out T.J. Warren due to a sore knee. With centers Alex Len (ankle) and Tyson Chandler (neck) likely absent too, the kids will suit up in Houston, where we could see a 20-point spread if James Harden returns as expected following a rest day. Chris Paul (hip) could take his respite tonight, while Phoenix counterpart Elfrid Payton is also questionable due to a knee issue after not practicing on Thursday.

The Grizzlies won't have Tyreke Evans available again and have also ruled out standout defender Andrew Harrison due to a wrist issue. Chandler Parsons will be available against Utah, which is deep, loaded and desperate for a win. There's no number here at the time of this writing, but it's likely to be heavy lumber too.

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton each tweaked ankles in Thursday night's rout of Golden State, but are expected to play against the Lakers. Lonzo Ball has been diagnosed with only a knee contusion after an MRI following Wednesday's win over Dallas, but he may rest for L.A., which could give some of his minutes to returning guard Josh Hart (hand).

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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