Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:01 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - New Orleans at Denver, Altitude, 9:05 ET

Leading your division through five games is somewhat trivial, but for two teams looking to climb into the Western Conference’s top-four, its progress.

The Pelicans and Nuggets have each won four of their first five and lead the Southwest and Northwest, respectively. Denver enjoyed a perfect 4-0 start straight up and against the spread before suffering a 121-114 loss at the Lakers on Thursday night, so it should be well-rested for this date with the Pels, who also come off their first defeat.

With Anthony Davis ruled out due to an elbow injury, Utah crushed New Orleans at the Smoothie King Center, winning 132-111 in a game it led by as much as 28 points. Davis tried to play through the elbow sprain against the Nets and shot just 6-for-19. Because he felt pain at shootaround prior to the Jazz game, he was held out and won't play tonight. Davis should be back in the lineup at some point this week.

The Pels will be also without point guard Elfrid Payton, who left with a sprained ankle in Saturday’s third quarter. They’ll also likely be missing shooter Darius Miller (quad) and list Julius Randle as probable due to plantar fasciitis, so count on him filling Davis’ shoes in the starting lineup next to Nikola Mirotic since the All-Star can’t go.

Denver center Nikola Jokic is averaging 23.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists through the first five games but had a six-turnover night against the Lakers and has made just two of his last eight 3-pointers after opening the season 4-for-7. The Nuggets will be without emotional leader Will Barton, a versatile, talented wing, for the foreseeable future due to a hip injury. Torrey Craig has taken his spot in the lineup.

Denver has won four of its last five meetings with the Pelicans, including a 117-111 OT win in the most recent contest last December 15.

Game of the Night II - Toronto at Milwaukee, Fox Sports Wisconsin, 8:05 ET

The NBA’s only remaining undefeated teams meet in Milwaukee’s new Fiserv Forum, which has definitely emerged on the to-do list.

I got to see most NBA arenas in my past life -- wish I hadn’t missed Seattle and Vancouver – so a good gym is really appreciated around these parts. It appears that they’ve put together quite the building in downtown Milwaukee. The lower bowl packs 10,000 and is sure to provide a great atmosphere when the Bucks command it on the floor. Fortunately for Milwaukee, that’s going to be often.

Before October even ends, we can already say with certainty that the Eastern Conference has a fourth top contender. Favored Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia rolled off everyone’s tongue as the most likely to ascend to the throne vacated by the Cavaliers when LeBron James left town again, but the Bucks have quickly taken the wait-and-see stance most took regarding their fortunes and shoved that in the nearest closet.

The Bucks are still 14-to-1 to win the East at the Westgate Superbook behind the Celtics (4/5), Raptors (2/1) and 76ers (5/1), so that’s emerging as a fantastic value bet while it lasts. Milwaukee opened at 25-to-1, lumped in there with the Wizards as teams that could make the leap if everything broke right. While the Wizards have gotten off to a rough start without Dwight Howard to help shore things up in the paint, the Bucks look to move to 7-0 and ensure everyone knows that the secret is out by winning Monday’s battle of unbeatens.

New head coach Mike Budenholzer has quickly put his imprint on things with an increased tempo and smart rotations that click and play to the strengths of the guys on the floor. The Bucks lead the East in scoring (119.3) and play at the third-fastest pace in the conference behind the Hawks and Wizards. Despite this, Milwaukee ranks second in the entire league in defensive efficiency (95.4) and is tops in rebound rate (55.6).

The Bucks have beaten their last five opponents by double-digits, which includes a 17-point win over the Pacers team most expect will emerge as their primary competition in the Central. They’ve beaten the 76ers by 15 and the Timberwolves by 30, winning games so decisively that Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging only 30.7 minutes per game. It was a surprise when he came back into Saturday night’s 113-91 rout of Orlando in the fourth with the game already decided and seemingly was doing so just to stretch his legs and get some reps since it’s so early in the season.

Antetokounmpo missed the start of the second half after catching an Aaron Gordon elbow that he said “probably knocked (him) out.” Concussion tests revealed no issue, but he was placed into the protocol on Monday morning and won't play here. Toronto's Kawhi Leonard will also be sidelined, sitting out the first of a back-to-back set so that he's available tomorrow. Leonard is shooting 50 percent from the field and has shot 10-for-22 from 3-point range, averaging 26.6 points and 8.0 boards per game. He has yet to play in a road game of the season.

Among the players surrounding Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton (21.8 ppg) looks like a lock to reach his first All-Star game and Eric Bledsoe is growing increasingly comfortable with his duties at the point, defending and running the floor with the athleticism few can match. Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova have helped spread the floor, former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon is the perfect glue guy and this year’s rookie Donte DiVincenzo is the same winner he was at Villanova and adds to the quality pieces.

Kyle Lowry is averaging 19.8 games for the Raps and shooting nearly 58 percent for a team blessed with quality depth as its biggest strength. For that to translate to tonight’s showdown, forward OG Anunoby (personal), Delon Wright (groin) and Fred VanVleet (toe) must participate. According to Sportsnet Canada’s Michael Grange, Anunoby and Wright expect to play while VanVleet is day-to-day.

The Bucks are 4-2 ATS, while Toronto is 3-3. Five of the Raptors' six games have surpassed the posted total, while Milwaukee has seen the 'over' hit in four of six.

The card
Atlanta at Philadelphia, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Hawks lost at home to Chicago but have started faster than expected by playing as fast as they intended to, leading the NBA in pace (109.8 possessions per game).

Philadelphia is just 1-5 ATS but even though Joel Embiid struggled in the second half of his first back-to-back of the season, shooting 9-for-24 in Wednesday's loss in Milwaukee, he looked no worse for the wear on Saturday night in finishing with 27 points and 14 boards in a two-point win over Charlotte.

Portland at Indiana, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Trail Blazers continue a four-game road trip after splitting in Florida and continue to get brilliance from Damian Lillard, who has scored over 40 in consecutive games, shooting nearly 55 percent and 10-for-21 from 3-point range.

Nate McMillan is just 1-3 against Portland, his former employer, since ascending to the head chair with the Pacers, but gets suspended wing Tyreke Evans back from suspension after he dropped the hammer to prove a point that no one is above the law after Evans showed up late to shootaround.

Sacramento at Miami, 7:35 p.m. ET: Second-year point guard DeAaron Fox has a chance at Most Improved if he can straighten out the jump shot and hit 2-for-5 from 3-point range in Friday night's win over the Wizards after starting the season 1-for-10 from beyond the arc.

After impressive wins over New York and Portland, the Heat holding serve at home here would give it a three-game winning streak that would match last season's second-longest run of prosperity.

Brooklyn at New York, 8:05 p.m. ET: With the exception of 20-point loss in Indiana, the Nets have been in every game this season and are 4-2 ATS after slicing into a 19-point deficit to challenge Golden State late in the foruth quarter of Sunday's 120-114 loss in which they shot 20-for-42 from 3-point range.

The Knicks lost in Brooklyn by a bucket on Oct. 19 but had won four straight against the Nets before Tim Hardaway's game-winning 3-pointer at Barclays came nowhere close to finding the mark.

Golden State at Chicago, 8:05 p.m. ET: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are in a great flow to start 2018-19 and combined to shoot 20-for-41 from 3-point range in wins over NYC's teams, scoring 139 points between them by often taking turns toying with the Knicks and Nets.

WIth Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn out for at least a month due to knee injuries and Lauri Markkanen (elbow) also out until about December, the Bulls are the Zach LaVine Show at the moment and got the full brunt of all that entails in a Saturday win in Atlanta where he scored 27 points and 11 boards but turned it over nine times.

L.A. Lakers at Minnesota, 8:05 p.m. ET, NBATV: The Lake Show has been as inconsistent as expected thus far, but Lance Stephenson has been the driving force in both wins, dominating on the second unit while averaging 16.3 points, 7 rebounds and 4.6 assists over the last three games entering this one.

The Jimmy Butler saga continues with no resolution but it's obvious his presence is killing Karl-Anthony Towns' game since even more touches due to Andrew Wiggins' absence couldn't snap him out of his funk as Towns shot 12-for-33 in losses to Toronto and Milwaukee, regressing in full view.

Dallas at San Antonio, 8:35 p.m. ET: Luka Doncic is averaging 18.7 points, 6.2 boards and 4.0 assists through the first six NBA games, but it remains to be seen how he handles losing for the first time in his pro career given how successful his teams were in Europe.

Sweeping the Lakers has helped the Spurs top the .500 mark through five games and a light schedule over the next few weeks give them an opportunity to remain among the West's top eight when most had written them off prematurely -- again.

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

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