Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM

Thursday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Minnesota at Denver (-5, 225), TNT, 10:35 ET

With four games remaining, there’s no room for error for the Nuggets and Clippers, the teams currently on the outside looking in the race for the Western Conference’s final five playoff spots. Only the Rockets, Warriors and Trail Blazers can rest easy entering Thursday night’s action.

Denver and Minnesota are separated by a single game and will play twice in the next week, squaring off again in Minneapolis to close the regular season next Wednesday. The Timberwolves hoped to have Jimmy Butler back from a knee injury for this first clash but will likely have to hang on without his services since he’s considered doubtful.

The Nuggets have been without one of their top two-way players, Gary Harris, for the last nine games. He won’t be back tonight either, but after losing the first two without him in the lineup, Denver has won five of seven. Will Barton has stepped up on the wing, while Paul Millsap has played his way into a rhythm and is making the type of contributions the team envisioned getting down the stretch when they signed him this offseason.

Center Nikola Jokic’s brilliance has been the one constant, similar to how the Timberwolves’ most stable presence without Butler has been young forward Karl-Anthony Towns. Both teams play through the post, ranking around the middle-of-the-pack in the league in pace but among the bottom-five in defensive efficiency. It would be strange to see this crucial game wind up low-scoring, even though desperation often does yield unexpected results.

The Nuggets have surrendered 100 or more points in 29 straight games but have scored at least 103 in 28 of those. The ‘over’ is 21-7-1 in those contests, and there’s no reason to expect that they’ll slow things down at home since they like to take advantage of their familiarity with the altitude. Both meetings with the Wolves have topped the posted total, though Denver did lose at home, 112-104, on Dec. 20. Harris and Millsap were absent for that one too, while Minnesota has had Butler for both encounters and have ridden his 32-point scoring average to a pair of wins.

Towns has shot over 60 percent and is averaging 19.5 points and 11.5 rebounds against the Nuggets, but he’ll now have to produce as the focal point of the offense. He scored a career-high 56 points against Atlanta last week but is just 23-for-62 from the field in the other four games of this 2-3 stretch that has put the Wolves’ playoff status in doubt.

Jokic has made 47 of his 84 shot attempts from the field over his last four games, including 10-for-24 from 3-point range. He's averaged 29.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists, bouncing back with a vengeance after a rough outing against Joel Embiid. Millsap looked like a shell of himself since returning on Feb. 27, demonstrating only glimpses of the version we're used to seeing. He appears to have worked the rust off, working at least 30 minutes in each of the last five games and averaging 22.4 points and 8.4 boards.

Minnesota hasn’t covered in a game since beating the Clippers on March 20 and is on a 1-7-1 run against the spread. Butler has been out since just after the All-Star break and it’s been obvious that Tom Thibodeau’s regulars haven’t had a lot in the tank after playing so many minutes looking to make up for their All-Star wing’s absence.

The Timberwolves have failed to hit the century mark in three of their last four games, something that hadn’t happened this season. They’ve only had one other instance where they didn’t hit 100 points in consecutive games and rebounded for a 116-98 win against the Pelicans on Jan. 6. Squaring off against a team that isn’t likely to bog them down may aid their cause. They’ve won four straight in the series, including the last two at Pepsi Center, averaging over 115 points per game in sweeping all of 2017’s encounters over the course of last season and this one.

Game of the Night Too - L.A. Clippers at Utah (-7, 211), Prime Ticket, 9:05 ET

Tonight’s card is fantastic in that it features only one sub-.500 team participating in the six-pack of games, but only one other offering can match the desperation we’re likely to see from the teams above. After salvaging their season with a thrilling comeback win over suddenly vulnerable San Antonio on Tuesday, the Clippers remain alive, albeit needing to run the table while getting some help.

Still, it’s better than the alternative, which nearly became reality since they were down seven points entering the final few minutes before rallying to upset the Spurs. Austin Rivers drilled a huge 3-pointer to erase a deficit inside the final 30 seconds and Lou Williams continued his fourth-quarter brilliance to keep hope alive.

Now L.A. just has to survive its final road game of the season and it will realistically have a chance to claw back into the final eight since the Nuggets and Pelicans have to come to Staples over the weekend. There can be no looking ahead since the Jazz own a three-game winning streak that has it in the driver’s seat for the No. 4 seed, the final available spot that secures homecourt advantage in the first round.

Danilo Gallinari won’t be available, ruled out due to his injured hand again, so the Clippers will have to rely on a rotation that feature rookies Tyrone Wallace, C.J. Williams and Sindarius Thornton in heightened roles on the win. Lou Williams, DeAndre Jordan, Tobias Harris, Rivers and Montrezl Harrell are all playing well enough to trust that they’ll at least be able to hang around in Salt Lake City.

L.A. won the first meeting 102-84 way back on Oct. 24 but has dropped the last two games against the Jazz by double-digits. Blake Griffin was a part of two of the three contests, including the most recent encounter on Jan. 20. Jordan didn’t play in the 125-113 loss due to a sprained ankle, so there’s little that can be taken from the game outside of Williams exploding for 31 points, 10 steals and seven assists.

Gobert has played in two of the games and has shot 79 percent while Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has participated in all three and has averaged 22 points. The 21-year-old guard has scored 21 or more points in 10 straight to boost his season average to 20.4, tops among all first-year players.

The over is 6-1 over Utah’s last seven. The Jazz surrendered 110 points in Tuesday’s home win against the Lakers but have only given up 100 in consecutive games once since Jan. 21 and lead the Western Conference in defensive efficiency, ranking only behind Boston in Philadelphia.

Injury report

The Warriors are locked into the No. 2 seed in the West, so it's no surprise they're being cautious with Andre Iguodala's knee as they remain on the road following Tuesday's win in Oklahoma City by making their lone appearance in Indiana. The Pacers won in Oakland, 92-81, on March 27, but will now have to deal with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, all of whom missed that game. Stephen Curry remains sidelined and won't return until late in the first round at the earliest.

The Cavs have a fun back-to-back to play as they attempt to secure a top-four seed beginning at home tonight against the Wizards. Head coach Tyronn Lue will be back on the sideline for Cleveland, which enters action even with the 76ers for the East's No. 3 spot and visits Philadelphia tomorrow night looking to snap their newest contender to throne's 12-game winning streak. LeBron James has played in only one April back-to-back since the 2014-15 season but has a chance to play all 82 games this season, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this situation.

George Hill is questionable with an ankle injury, while Washington counterpart John Wall has returned and is looking to play his way back into a rhythm. The Heat have moved into first place in the Southeast Division by a half-game to edge into sixth place in the East. For more, read this Wizards at Cavs preview from [...].

Damian Lillard is unlikely to play for Portland in Houston after aggravating an ankle sprain the other night. With the Blazers looking like a lock for No. 3, we may not see Lillard at all the rest of the regular season unless Terry Stotts throws him out there for a spell in the finale just so he doesn't accumulate rust. Chris Paul and James Harden are back for the Rockets, who will have almost everyone available with exception of Ryan Anderson, considered doubtful due to his own ankle issue.

The Bucks won't have to deal with Brooklyn forward DeMarre Carroll due to a hip injury, but will face Nets sniper Allen Crabbe, whose absence was clearly felt against the Sixers last time out.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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