Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Portland at Denver (-4, 218), Altitude, 9:05 ET

Games like these are what make the 82-game marathon worth it. It checks all boxes, featuring division rivals with plenty of history while carrying stakes that are through the roof. The course of the season for both teams is on the line.

The Nuggets just want to be playing when the playoffs begin this weekend. For the visitors, it's a bit more complicated.

After being soundly outplayed in the second half of a Saturday night loss in San Antonio, the Trail Blazers are suddenly in danger of losing a Northwest Division that they’ve been in control of since firing off 13 straight wins from Feb. 14-March 18. They’re in danger of losing four straight if they fail to win on the road in Denver, which would put them in jeopardy of collapsing down the stretch since the Jazz are scheduled to come into town on Wednesday to close out the regular season.

Portland would love nothing more than to treat its fans to a boring regular-season finale that night, complete with Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic suiting up for abbreviated stints if they’re in the mix at all. To get that accomplished, it will have to deal the Nuggets a serious blow to their postseason chances, which have improved thanks to a well-timed five-game winning streak.

If the Trail Blazers fail to end that tonight and Utah extends its own prosperous run to six games by defeating Golden State on Tuesday, the No. 3 seed could switch hands with a loss in Game No. 82, potentially resulting in the Blazers winding up on the road to open the playoffs. Given the strides they’ve made over the next two months, that would be a disaster.

The Nuggets eliminated the Clippers from playoff contention on Saturday afternoon with an impressive 134-115 win and hope to reach the final night of the regular-season with a chance at finishing top-eight by winning at Minnesota. Head coach Michael Malone told reporters his team is playing “get-it-done basketball” at the moment, having raised their level when it has mattered most. Following losses on consecutive nights in Philadelphia and Toronto, Denver closed out a season-long seven-game road trip with a resilient 126-125 victory in Oklahoma City and has yet to lose in April, claiming home wins over the Bucks, Pacers and Timberwolves prior to their rout in L.A.

Portland hasn’t been getting it done, but a part of that has had to do with injury concerns. Not only did they lose starting wing Moe Harkless to a knee surgery that he’s hoping to return from later this month, but Damian Lillard has been playing through significant ankle soreness that the team had hoped rest would alleviate, giving him a night off even after he returned from paternity leave. Now Lillard doesn’t feel he can rest, though it’s likely he’d be absent on Wednesday if his team leaves Pepsi Center victorious.

The Nuggets have been without one of their top two-way players, Gary Harris, for the last 11 games and have upgraded him to “doubtful” for this one. Jamal Murray has emerged in his absence and has scored in double-figures in 16 straight, averaging 18.9 points in that span. He’s at a 20-points-per-game clip in April and has become Denver’s most reliable shooter, regularly playing 35-plus minutes.

Guard Will Barton has also continued to thrive, excelling in his playmaker role on the wing and keying the Clippers blowout with a season-high 31 points on 11-for-15 shooting. He’s connected on five 3-pointers in three of his last eight games and opened the month with his first two 10-rebound nights of the season, so he’s clearly stepped things up. The former Blazers second-round find has really come into his own in his seventh year as a pro and is poised to make a large impact here.

Nurkic, who Denver acquired from the Bulls on a draft night deal back in 2014, is wrapping up his first full season with the Trail Blazers and probably has a little extra invested in this one too. The 7-foot center is also playing his best down the stretch and is poised to have a big influence on a playoff team for the first time. He was able to play in only one postseason game last year after suffering a non-displaced fracture of his right leg just before April. The 33 points he scored against his former team just days before that bad break remain his career-high, but he’s had success against Jokic, who essentially beat him out in Denver, rendering him a disposable backup ultimately dealt away because Mason Plumlee was deemed to be a better fit.

Nurkic has averaged 15.3 points in the three meetings with his former team this season, but Denver has emerged with victories twice. Since March 5, he’s come up with 11 double-doubles in 17 games, including three straight despite back issues.

Jokic has averaged 26 points, 12.7 rebounds and 7.6 assists over his last six games, shooting 50 percent or better five times. He’s averaged just 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting just 40 percent, all figures below his usual production, in the three games against Portland. Paul Millsap looked like a shell of himself upon returning on Feb. 27, but has worked the rust off, making life easier on Jokic by commanding attention while working at least 30 minutes in each of the last seven games, averaging 19.9 points and 7.3 boards. He’s only faced the Blazers once with his new team, shooting just 6-for-16 in a 99-82 road loss back on Nov. 13.

Another of the x-factors here will be Blazers guard C.J. McCollum snapping out of a slump that has seen him shoot under 40 percent over his last five games, averaging just 16.4 points, including just 5-for-28 from 3-point range. Denver isn’t the ideal team to rebound against given that he’s averaged 14.7 points in three meetings against him, his lowest output against any NBA team this season. He’s shot 39.5 percent from the field. If that doesn’t change, Portland may be facing the daunting prospect of being involved in Wednesday’s most attractive clash as well. You’ll understand the Trail Blazers feeling that it’s a little too early for all that drama.

Portland will look to split its four meetings with Denver this season but are in danger of losing the season series for the first time since 2012-13. The Blazers have won 15 of the last 19 between the division rivals but haven't won in the Mile High City since Oct. 2016. The Nuggets have surrendered 100 or more points in 30 of their last 31 games but have scored at least 103 in 29 of those. The ‘over’ is 22-8-1 in Denver games since Jan. 29.

Game of the Night Too - Oklahoma City (-3, 214) at Miami, Fox Sports OK/FL, 9:05 ET

There’s only one other game on Monday’s schedule where both teams are invested in the result for playoff purposes. That statement wouldn’t be accurate if we were talking tanking, but we’ll keep it simple by telling you that Thunder-Heat is definitely the game most worth keeping an eye on in the early block.

The Heat own the No. 6 seed and would play Philadelphia if the current playoff standings hold. Like everyone else in the East, their preference would be to finish 7th in order to open the playoffs against depleted Boston, but both Washington and Milwaukee are better-positioned to make that happen. A Southeast Division title may wind up being their consolation prize, which can be secured by ruining Oklahoma City’s trip to South Florida.

The Thunder are still in danger of missing the playoffs altogether but would be in position to potentially finish top-four and secure homecourt advantage in the first round since Memphis comes to town on Wednesday. In order to make that happen, they’ll need to follow up an impressive upset of Houston with a big win in Miami.

Oklahoma City won at home 105-99 on March 23 in the only other meeting this season, rallying to win thanks to a 41-point fourth quarter. Russell Westbrook was dominant with 29 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists while Steven Adams added 24 points and 12 boards. The Thunder won despite Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combining to shoot 5-for-24, including 0-for-10 from 3-point range.

With center Hassan Whiteside back, the Heat should be better able to match up with Adams in the paint and will be looking to snap a four-game losing streak at the hands of OKC. Miami has won its last two games as a home underdog, impressively crushing Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Both teams are healthy enough that only shooting guards, Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters, each out for the season, are on the injury report. The under has prevailed in seven of the last eight Heat games.

Injury report

Guard DeMar DeRozan and center Jonas Valanciunas sat out Sunday’s home win over Toronto but should participate in Detroit. Serge Ibaka is likely to rest and it’s safe to assume conversations will be had over whether to keep Kyle Lowry out too. Of course, he may be forced to play a few minutes out of necessity with Fred Van Vleet banged up, having left the Magic game with lower back tightness. If were a DFS player, Delon Wright would be worth a long look. Backup shooting guard Norman Powell also departed last night’s win with an ankle sprain that apparently looked more serious than it ended up being.

With Toronto locked into the East’s No. 1 spot, the only thing it is playing for is homecourt advantage in a potential NBA Finals meeting with Golden State, who it was swept by during the regular season. A win here would keep the Raptors a game up on the defending champs with one to go. They’ve already set the franchise record for most single-season victories. Detroit may hold out Reggie Jackson, who is dealing with an illness. The Pistons lost in Memphis on Sunday afternoon despite connecting on 23 3-pointers.

The Cavs are still chasing the No. 3 seed, so LeBron James will definitely grace Madison S quare Garden by playing in Game No. 81. Rodney Hood has also been upgraded to probable despite his achilles issue, but point guards George Hill (ankle) and Jose Calderon (hamstring) remain questionable. Both missed a couple of games last week. The Knicks are unlikely to have Enes Kanter (back), Tim Hardaway, Jr. (ankle) or Emmanuel Mudiay (concussion) in the mix, which leaves Trey Burke and Michael Beasley as the primary offensive options.

The Cavs are still chasing the No. 3 seed, so LeBron James will definitely grace Madison S quare Garden by playing in Game No. 81. Rodney Hood has also been upgraded to probable despite his achilles issue, but point guards George Hill (ankle) and Jose Calderon (hamstring) remain questionable. Both missed a couple of games last week. The Knicks are unlikely to have Enes Kanter (back), Tim Hardaway, Jr. (ankle) or Emmanuel Mudiay (concussion) in the mix, which leaves Trey Burke and Michael Beasley as the primary offensive options.

The Grizzlies treated their home fans to a rare win yesterday as Marc Gasol participated and Marshon Brooks and Dillon Brooks each shined but are unlikely to provide as much resistance in Minnesota. It’s highly unlikely that their star center plays on the second night of a back-to-back, while the Timberwolves are in must-win mode and have Jimmy Butler back ready to play in his second straight contest.

Giannis Anteokounmpo sat out Saturday night’s win over New York with ankle soreness, so it remains to be seen if he makes it back tonight against Orlando. Malcolm Brogdon will make his highly anticipated return from a knee injury, while Tony Snell and John Henson should participate in what will be the final regular-season game at Bradley Center before the team moves into a new downtown arena to open next season. The Magic will be much easier to handle if Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross are held out on the second night of a back-to-back after returning from injuries yesterday.

The Pelicans find themselves in a must-win situation against the Clippers, so it’s no surprise that they’re hoping to get Ian Clark back from an ankle injury and plan on playing Nikola Mirotic after rolling his ankle in a huge upset over Golden State. L.A. is likely to be without Lou Williams due to a sprain and may opt to sit center DeAndre Jordan due to ankle soreness that has been affecting him, according to Doc Rivers.

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

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