Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:01 AM

Wednesday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - New Orleans at Houston (-7.5/229), ESPN, 8:05 ET

These teams have met twice since DeMarcus Cousins tore his achilles in the closing seconds of a Pelicans’ win late last January, a moment that forever altered the future of New Orleans’ franchise. Losing the All-Star center they envisioned playing next to Anthony Davis into the next decade forced them to go out and acquire Nikola Mirotic, whose ability to spread the floor made for a more efficient brand of ball as Alvin Gentry got the team to play at the faster tempo he prefers, ultimately leading to a playoff berth.

Although they made a lukewarm offer to Cousins, the Pels were ready to move on when he passed on the deal and are excited about adding Julius Randle as a replacement in addition to keeping Mirotic in the fold. Rajon Rondo left for the Lakers, so Elfrid Payton was signed to try and fill the role next to Jrue Holiday so that Gentry always has playmakers on the floor looking to push and feed Davis, who has made no secret of his desire to emerge as MVP this season.

That type of push is possible, especially if the Pelicans can find a way to overcome the Southwest Divisions top team, a Rockets squad that has surpassed the Spurs as the team to beat in what’s been the NBA’s most loaded division over the past two decades. The Northwest is vying for that distinction now, but there’s still plenty of quality for New Orleans to overcome with the Spurs still a factor and the Mavericks and Grizzlies looking improved to start the season. Houston is the team to beat, however, and opens at home looking to bounce back from a demoralizing end to their championship pursuit last May. Had Chris Paul not blown a hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, the Rockets probably would’ve opened on Tuesday and hosted a “Ring Night.” Instead, they’ll tip off looking to see this season’s roster take shape given a number of tweaks.

Paul returns alongside reigning MVP James Harden and center Clint Capela, who just missed out on an All-Star spot but signed a five-year, $90 million extension nonetheless. Carmelo Anthony has come on board to serve as the team’s sixth man, making the transition after being unwilling to come off the bench in Oklahoma City, where he wore down over the course of last season, eroding into a liablity come playoffs. James Ennis III will start at small forward alongside holdovers P.J. Tucker and Capela up front, while the departure of standout defenders Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute require guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Marquese Chriss to step their games up off the bench. Shooter Brandon Knight is also on board, but will join Chriss and forward Zhou Qi in missing this game due to injury.

New Orleans is healthy, but lost three of four against Houston last season and hasn’t won a season series against its division rival since 2011. The Rockets have scored over 100 points against New Orleans in 13 straight, winning 10 of those matchups outright. Mike D’Antoni and Gentry are great friends who believe in getting up and down the floor, so it’s no surprise to see this total as high as it is, approaching 230. Despite their preference for playing at a fast pace, the ‘over’ was just 2-2 last season.

Memphis at Indiana(-6.5/207), 7:05 p.m. ET: Mike Conley looked sharp this preseason after missing 70 games last season due to a torn Achilles, ending the Grizzlies’ realistic chances of contending before they really got started. Losing him so early ended up costing David Fizdale his job after he clashed with Marc Gasol amid all the losing, altering the direction of the franchise. J.B. Bickerstaff ended up being hired as head coach after an interim stint and gets Conley, Gasol and Chandler Parsons back at 100 percent, so there’s optimism that this group can return to playoff contention. No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. struggled with foul trouble in exhibitions but only turned 19 last month and is likely to provide rollercoaster rides as he gets acclimated. Although Gasol and Conley can still be one of the top defenders at their positions when they’re right, the Griz no longer employ the “grit and grind” style that delivered results when those two were younger and they had Zach Randolph to play through in the post and Tony Allen to lock people up on the perimeter, so we’ll see how this group adapts over the long haul should everyone stay healthy.

Indiana won’t sneak up on anyone like it did last season when Victor Oladipo emerged as one of the top guards in the East. He’s got all major contributors back around him with the exception of Lance Stephenson. Tyreke Evans should provide an upgrade on the wing after choosing the Pacers among a number of suitors, while shooter Doug McDermott and center Kyle O’Quinn add quality depth to an already deep roster. Thaddeus Young put together 16 points and 10 rebounds in 29 minutes in the preseason tune-up after sitting out most of the last few weeks with a bruised right foot. His opting in to the final year of his contract rivals Evans’ acquisition as the most important move of the offseason. Cory Joseph (Canada) and Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia) played for national teams this summer so they should be in shape to play key roles in Nate McMillan’s rotation. According to the Indianapolis Star’s J. Michael, the Pacers shot just 32.7 from 3-point range this preseason. Indiana has gone 56-26 at home over the last two seasons and have averaged 135 points in wins over its last two home openers. Myles Turner has played major roles in both wins. He signed an extension to open the week and will play despite an ankle tweak. Indiana swept Memphis last season. The Griz were just 6-35 on the road.

Milwaukee (-2/217) at Charlotte, 7:05 p.m. ET: Former Spurs top assistants Mike Budenholzer and James Borrego debut as head coaches of their new teams. Budenholzer arrives after leaving Atlanta following a five-year run, while Borrego, who had an interim stint in the head seat with the Magic back in 2015, will be in the head seat for his first season opener. Both want to play with pace and will look to push whenever possible, placing movement without the ball and sharing it via the extra pass above all else. The Bucks averaged 124.8 points this preseason, an average aided by one overtime game but nonetheless impressive and indicative of the style Bud wants to employ. Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee in scoring in all three games he played, averaging 24 points and 11.6 rebounds. He’ll be an MVP candidate this season and has a familiar supporting cast around him, welcoming in center Brook Lopez and forward Ersan Ilyasova to spread the floor. They’ve got John Henson shooting 3s too. We’ll see how that goes.

The Hornets likely need to get off to a good start to avoid being blown up, so it will be interesting to see how they attack this season. There’s an initiative to play Kemba Walker off the ball more, allowing young shooting guards Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk more freedom. Borrego wants the ball to stick less and is hoping to see Walker thrive without being so ball-dominant. The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell reported that Borrego instituted a 12-second shot clock at practices in an effort to play faster, resulting in the team averaging 118.3 points over their last three preseason games, all wins. The Hornets and Bucks played four times last season, but all games took place by Christmas. Khris Middleton averaged 30.5 points against Charlotte as the teams split 2-2, but with Dwight Howard gone and two new coaches in place, you can’t trust much from last season.

Miami (-2.5/210.5) at Orlando, 7:05 p.m. ET: Florida’s franchises square off after dueling in the preseason nine days ago, playing a sloppy 90-89 game where both teams shot poorly, combining to shoot 30 percent from 3-point range (27-for-56) in Miami. We’ll see if the teams can find the range in Orlando as the Steve Clifford era tips off in Central Florida as the Heat and Magic open up against one another for the third straight year. The teams have split the last two meetings with the Orlando winning last October. Erik Spoelstra opens his 10th season at the helm in Miami and will be facing his sixth Magic head coach in that span, a familiar face who has coached in the Southeast Division for the past five years in Charlotte and was an assistant with Orlando from ’07-’12. Spoelstra’s Heat beat Clifford’s Hornets the first eight times the teams played and went 22-9 against them during his stint in Charlotte, which includes winning the last six.

The Heat have dangled key pieces in an effort to try and pry Jimmy Butler out of Minnesota, so there are few players on the roster who can feel safe outside of team legends Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, each entering their final season with the franchise. Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson have each been a fixture in rumors and should make up the starting backcourt, while Orlando is expected to give D.J. Augustin first crack at point guard ahead of Jerian Grant. He and shooting guard Evan Fournier combined to shoot 3-for-18 (16.7%) in the Oct. 8 exhibition loss. Heat centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo will look to make Orlando lottery pick Mo Bamba’s debut a forgettable one when he enters for Nikola Vucevic, who is likely to be moved by the trade deadline. The Heat and Magic split last season’s series after Orlando won three of four in 2016-17, the first season where they managed to win more than they lost against Miami since 2009. Forward James Johnson (hernia) and guard Dion Waiters (ankle) are rout, while wing Justise Winslow (hamstring) is doubtful to play. Dragic (knee) is a go.

Brooklyn at Detroit (-5/212), 7:05 p.m. ET:The Pistons couldn’t pay off opening a new downtown arena with a playoff appearance despite making an in-season trade for Blake Griffin, so Stan Van Gundy was ultimately not retained. Although Michigan head coach John Beilein was a serious candidate, reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was ultimately hired and gets back Reggie Jackson to run the point. Had he not missed 37 games due to an injured ankle last season, Van Gundy may have finished better than 39-43 and wouldn’t have lost his spot. It’s easy to forget that Detroit won 14 of its first 20 last season. Van Gundy made a soft landing at ESPN, while Casey, shown the door by Toronto after failing to get past LeBron James, makes the short trip across the border.

Andre Drummond had a productive preseason but shot just 6-for-21 against Brooklyn when the teams met in Detroit on Oct. 8. Jackson played just 16 minutes and shot 2-for-7 while Griffin scored 17 points in 21 minutes as both saw their first exhibition action, so don’t glean much from that result. D’Angelo Russell did score 25 points in the 110-108 OT win that also saw Caris LeVert flirt with a triple-double. His emergence is a key x-factor for Brooklyn, who hopes he’ll take a step forward alongside Russell. With DeMarre Carroll out indefinitely and Allen Crabbe nursing an ankle injury, the play of LeVert Joe Harris will be vital. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is questionable with an adductor strain). Backup point guard Shabazz Napier is also likely sidelined. Detroit is healthier, listing only starting SF Stanley Johnson (sore toe) as a question mark. He should play.

Atlanta at New York (-3.5/215), 7:35 p.m. ET: It wouldn’t be surprising to see these teams vying for the No. 1 pick come April, so it’s easy to joke that we could see some tanking early. All kidding aside, both Fizdale and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce would love to see their seasons get off to good starts as they begin their respective head-coaching tenures in this opener. Opportunities to win will be few and far between, so don’t expect to see the Knicks favored in too many games until Kristaps Porzingis makes his return after All-Star break, which isn’t necessarily set in stone. Tim Hardaway, Jr. will likely be tasked with being the primary scoring option until the Latvian star returns but comes into this one nursing an ankle injury. He led the team in scoring in New York’s last three preseason games from the wing, while center Enes Kanter and rookie Kevin Knox should also play major roles. Fizdale likes Emmanuel Mudiay’s length and views him as a backcourt fixture, but he will miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. A neck issue has shooting guard Courtney Lee listed as doubtful, so Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina and Ron Baker are likely in for extended runs. Lance Thomas will start alongside Knox and Kanter up front and is expected to serve in a glue-guy role.

The Hawks are hoping for big things out of second-year forward John Collins but aren’t going to throw him out there with an ankle that’s less than 100 percent, so he won’t play. Center Dewayne Dedmon (ankle) is also out, so look for former Phoenix lottery pick Alex Len and Miles Plumlee to play the bulk of the minutes inside. Len has extended his range out to the 3-point line and may play a larger role for Atlanta than most expect, but I’d also look for them to go small whenever possible. Rookie point guard Trae Young will get the keys from the jump and looks to get out and run alongside promising forward Taurean Prince and Collins once healthy. 41-year-old Vince Carter will start opposite Kent Bazemore on the wing.

Cleveland at Toronto (-12/214), 7:35 p.m. ET: The post-LeBron James era begins with Cleveland as a double-digit underdog, a role that it hasn’t seen much of over the past few years but could become the norm. Pride figures to go a long way for the Cavs, especially at home, but they could be in a trouble spot here given where the league’s schedule-makers have them opening up. Toronto will have no mercy, especially since it lost six of seven meetings last season, getting swept out of the Eastern Conference semifinals to close out the Casey/DeMar DeRozan era. Point guard Kyle Lowry is among those most bitter about how things ended, but the majority of last year’s team returns intact and will be coached by Nick Nurse, a top assistant who will look to put his own spin on things while preserving continuity.

Kawhi Leonard will debut for the Raptors after being acquired in a package for DeRozan and impressed in the preseason, showing no signs of the injury that caused so much disharmony in San Antonio, ultimately ending his time there. Only guard Delon Wright (thigh) is listed as questionable for a Raptors roster that ranks right up there with the Celtics as the East’s deepest. The Cavs will build around Kevin Love, who was dealing with a sore foot but will play and be the focal point on the offensive end. Larry Nance, Jr. just got extended and will help Tristan Thompson in the paint, while last year’s midseason acquisitions, guards George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and wing Rodney Hood, will all look for increased touches to find more of a comfort zone with James gone. Hood shot poorly in the preseason and is nursing an ankle tweak but should play. Same goes for Nance, while J.R. Smith is doubtful with an elbow injury. Lottery pick Collin Sexton impressed throughout camp but will be tasked with making an impact off the bench to open his career since Ty Lue has decided on Hill as the starting point.

Minnesota at San Antonio (-3/210.5), 8:35 p.m. ET: Neither Popovich nor Tom Thibodeau could’ve had much peace of mind as their head hit the pillow on Tuesday night, which is assuming they managed to sleep at all. It’s hard to imagine guys who are meticulous in their preparation and obsess over every detail can be comfortable with how their seasons are starting, but the moment of truth has arrived following tumultuous offseasons. The Spurs moved on from Leonard and long-time guards Tony Parker (departed via free agency), Manu Ginobili (retirement) and Danny Green (traded) while adding DeRozan and new starting center Jakob Poeltl. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of their roster turnover since promising point guard Dejounte Murray (ACL) and rookie wing Lonnie Walker IV (MCL) were lost for the season due to torn ligaments. Derrick White was slated to take over for Murray could potentially miss two months because of a heel injury. The cursed start will lead to shooter Bryn Forbes starting and veteran Patty Mills getting the bulk of the work off the bench for a roster whose depth used to be a major strength. Rudy Gay’s bout with a heel issue went better than White’s, so he’ll be starting next to LaMarcus Aldridge and Poeltl up front. Pau Gasol will come off the bench.

The Timberwolves will bring awkward to new levels since Jimmy Butler is expected to start next to teammates he blew up last week in an effort to get himself dealt out of town. Upset that Karl-Anthony Towns as given a lucrative extension despite flopping in the playoffs, Butler doesn’t feel owner Glen Taylor is invested in his future and will play for Thibodeau only as long as it takes to get his ticket out of town. Count on Butler giving his normal effort out on the floor, but it’s got to be concerning that there’s such little harmony among this group, potentially affecting chemistry. Butler didn’t accompany the Timberwolves to Milwaukee for their preseason finale, so it’s anyone’s guess how things will go in San Antonio, where at least Butler won’t have to hear boos like he probably would’ve in Minneapolis. It’s likely we’ll see Thibs open with the same starting five (Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Towns, Jeff Teague, Butler) that was utilized most of last season, including a Western Conference first-round series that featured the Wolves being blown out by 18 points or more in three of their contests against Houston.

Utah (-8.5/205.5) at Sacamento, 10:05 p.m. ET: The Jazz sent the Kings a message in the final preseason game for both, crushing them 132-93. They beat Adelaide of the Australian League by less (129-99) and treated Sacramento like it was Perth, which it hammered 130-72 in their first exhibition. While you might be rolling your eyes at the lack of quality competition, Utah also posted double-digit wins over Toronto and Portland in a 5-0 preseason. Yes, now you’re impressed. None of those games matter, obviously, but it is important to note that a team that has had to deal with numerous injuries to promising guard Dante Exum and top defender Thabo Sefolosha over the past few years comes into the season extremely healthy. Bigs Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are moving great and looked to be playing with great confidence. Donovan Mitchell’s brilliant debut wasn’t a fluke. Neither was the emergence of Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale or Ricky Rubio’s late-season improvement before he was struck down by a hamstring injury. If this early run of good health is a sign of things to come, there will be a lot of foreshadowing in these blowouts too.

The Kings played a rare preseason back-to-back to close out exhibition play and gave a better account of themselves in losing at Portland, but they’re again expected to bring up the rear in the Pacific Division. Staying out of the Western Conference cellar will hinge on De’Aaron Fox improving substantially after a shaky rookie season running the point since head coach Dave Joerger’s intention is to take the training wheels off. With center Willie Cauley-Stein in a contract year, Skal Labissiere clamoring for more playing time and rookies Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles in the mix, the Kings will have a lot of motivated fours and fives to run the floor with. Promising scorer Bogdan Bogdanovic will miss the first few weeks due to a knee injury, which gives Buddy Hield and Justin Jackson opportunities for more minutes on the wing. Sacramento has lost seven of eight games against Utah, including the last five. The Kings have yet to beat the Jazz at the Golden1 Center have gone 1-6 against them in Sactown since 2015.

Dallas at Phoenix (-1/215), 10:35 p.m. ET, ESPN: The top two picks of the 2018 Draft square off in this nationally-televised opener that should satisfy an audience that wants to see the league’s most talented newcomers. With apologies to the rest of a nice-looking class of prospects, the Suns and Mavs look to have come away with the biggest prizes in terms of who will have the most immediate impact from the group. There are a number of other young bigs whose improvement could have them in the conversation when we’re discussing who ultimately emerged as the best 5-10 years from now, but the two picks taking center stage on the floor in Phoenix tonight are rightfully the Rookie of the Year betting favorties.

Deandre Ayton led the Suns in scoring and rebound in the first four preseason games he played, while Luka Doncic fit in seamlessly in games played in Dallas and China, running the point and looking as comfortable with the ball in his hands as he has for years precociously dominating the Euroleague. The Suns will likely try and disrupt that level of comfort by throwing Ariza at him, not to mention hoping that the first hostile atmosphere he’ll encounter as a pro can hinder him some. Doncic looks very capable of taking a lot of pressure off of Dennis Smith, Jr., allowing him to attack and better utilize his athletic gifts. DeAndre Jordan missed the China portion of the preseason due to a death in the family, but he finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds in last week’s final exhibition, so Ayton should have his hands full in his debut.

Suns guard Devin Booker is returning a bit early from hand surgery but has been cleared and practiced all last week, so there’s less concern that he’s rushing back. The elite scorer’s role is changing some this season under first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov, who is putting the ball in his hands with no true point guard on the roster. Jamal Crawford was signed to place another shooter in the mix, while DeAnthony Melton could emerge as an x-factor after being acquired alongside Ryan Anderson in a trade with Houston for Chriss and Knight that ended up being the last move Ryan McDonough made before being removed as general manager. Crawford has been listed as inactive for this one, while Isaiah Canaan should get in there as the starter next to Booker. There a re a lot of variables in this one, but the total looks to be a little low given how dangerous it would be for Rick Carlisle to employ much zone against Phoenix’s shooters. That said, the presence of Jordan and Tyson Chandler could make scoring around the rim difficult, so proceed with caution.

Denver (-1/226) at L.A. Clippers, 10:35 p.m. ET: Just a reminder that League Pass should be free this week, so be sure to fire up this bad boy on a picture-in-picture or tablet while you’re watching the rookies square off. The Nuggets are a team expected to take a step forward as guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris continue to improve and Paul Millsap grows more comfortable in Year 2 since joining the group. With versatile 23-year-old center Nikola Jokic having proven you can play through him as he makes his ascent towards a first All-Star distinction, the ceiling for Denver is so high that they’re a road favorite in this season debut. The addition of Isaiah Thomas could provide a major boost down the road, but he’s still rehabilitating his hip injury, so don’t count on seeing him appear on the floor here.

The Clippers are beginning the first full season of their rebuild, having moved on from the “Lob City” trio of Paul, Griffin and Jordan but retaining Doc Rivers to mold this next version. L.A. also went 5-0 in exhibitions, beating the Sydney Kings and Maccabi Haifa in addition to the Timberwolves, Lakers and this Nuggets team they’ll face tonight. L.A. won despite sitting top forward Tobias Harris and starting center Marcin Gortat, so don’t write off their chances to pull off a win here. Rivers is working with a deep roster due to the return of Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley from injuries and the drafting of talented rookie guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. With Lou Williams also back, the Nuggets are going to have to work to open the season with a road victory.

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

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