Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:00 AM

Wednesday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Utah at Portland (-1.5, 218.5), 10:35 ET, ESPN

Collectively, the top four teams in the NBA’s toughest division have won 14 consecutive games. The Nuggets and Thunder have separated themselves atop the Northwest, but the Trail Blazers and Jazz aren’t far behind and rank among the Western Conference’s top-eight rather comfortably, ranking fourth and seventh respectively entering Wednesday’s action.

This will be the fourth and final meeting of the season, so the rivals will be wrapping up early and will look to capture what could ultimately be a critical win that decides seeding once all 82 games are played.

Last season, a single game meant the difference between Portland winning the Northwest and finishing third in the conference and Utah failing to secure homecourt advantage as the No. 5 seed. Although the Jazz beat the fourth-seeded Thunder anyway and the Blazers were upset by the Pelicans in a sweep, head-to-head nevertheless played a huge role since Portland captured the final two regular-season encounters, the last of which came in a 102-93 victory in Game 82 on the final night.

The Jazz got revenge with a 120-90 rout in on Dec. 21 in their lone trip into Moda Center thus far and won at home on Christmas night 117-96 a few nights later. The Blazers pulled off a 109-104 upset on in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21 and will now look to avoid losing the season series against Utah for the first time since 2013 by matching Milwaukee for the most home victors in the NBA with 22. Only the Lakers have taken the floor in their arena more than the Blazers, who will be playing the second of a four-game homestand before hitting the road for a critical stretch between Feb. 10-March 16 that will see them play 12 of 15 outside Portland.

Guards Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic have consistently produced for the Blazers, who are 11-4 since Dec. 30, having won five of the last six. The victory over the Jazz was the only one against a team with a winning record, secured in spite of a 36-point outburst from Utah guard Donovan Mitchell. Lillard finished with team-highs of 26 points, eight boards and eight assists while Nurkic added 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six blocks as Portland rallied from a halftime deficit with a 39-point third quarter that was fueled by their Bosnian big man, who produced 17 points and four blocks in the 12 minutes coming out of the break.

Look no further than Nurkic’s matchup against Jazz center Rudy Gobert as the likely deciding factor tonight. The 7-foot-2 Frenchman held his counterpart to 8.5 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in the December meetings, holding him to 42.1 percent shooting. Nurkic has been much better thus far in 2019, averaging 17.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.4 blocks this month. He put together a 24-point, 23-rebound, 7-assist, 5-block, 5-steal game on New Year’s Day in Sacramento but has slowed down over the last few weeks, shooting over 50 percent only once in his last eight games, posting just three double-doubles.

Gobert averaged 14.5 points, 12.5 boards and 4.5 blocks in Utah’s wins over the Blazers but shot just 4-for-10 with four turnovers in the Jan. 21 loss. He should be rested since he comes off his second lowest rebounding output of the season in grabbing just four boards in Sunday’s 125-111 rout in Minnesota, making seven of eight shots. The Jazz shot 71 percent in the second half against the Timberwolves, improving to 9-1 in their last 10 games, which is the NBA’s second-most prosperous run over that stretch, trailing only Golden State, which has won 11 in a row.

Only two of those games have been on the road, but Utah has managed to pick up victories in L.A. and Minneapolis and are now 14-13 in away games.

Mitchell has turned it up this month and is averaging 30.4 points and 6.1 assists over the last 10. He’s scored 28.1 points per game in January, finding a rhythm after a shaky start to his sophomore season out of necessity since the Jazz lost all three of their point guards to injuries and had no choice but to hand him the reins. Although Ricky Rubio has returned from a hamstring injury that cost him weeks, Mitchell has remained aggressive.

Rubio comes off his best game since coming back, finishing with 17 points and six assists against the Wolves to bolster the group. He was limited to only 14 minutes is his return to action after missing the better part of seven contests, so the Jazz will be able to count on him this time around after he was a key factor in the December wins, posting an average 19 points and seven assists on nearly 60 percent shooting despite wrestling with foul trouble.

Mitchell has shot just 37.5 percent in the three games against the Blazers, averaging 19.3 points. He shot 1-for-10 in the 30-point win on Dec. 21 but his 36 points 10 days ago, two off his season-high, came despite a 2-for-8 from beyond the arc. The runner-up in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting got to the line 12 times and should continue to be aggressive tonight as the 41 free throws he’s shot over the past four games is easily his high over any four-game stretch he’s had in ’18-’19.

Lillard, who played his college ball in Utah at Weber State, has averaged 21.7 points in the three games against the Jazz so far and should be well-rested after taking Saturday night off due to knee soreness and a bruised right hand he’s been playing through over the past few weeks. McCollum responded well to being the primary catalyst and put together his first career triple-double, finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He’s averaged 26.3 points over the last three games as Portland has moved into the NBA’s top 10 in scoring (112.8 ppg).

The Jazz defense ranks third in point per game allowed (105.1) and fourth in defensive rating (104.8). The ‘under’ is 7-4 in Utah’s last 11 contests. The Trail Blazers have seen the ‘over’ prevail in five of their last six. The total opened at 218 and has been bet up to 218.5 at many sportsbooks.

Best of the Rest

Charlotte at Boston, 7:35 p.m. ET: Amid rumors that Kyrie Irving is having second thoughts about re-signing with Boston and may be interested in joining forces with LeBron James to chase championships and movie deals in L.A., the standout point guard is unlikely to suit up due to a hip strain. He had 25 points in a 119-103 win over the Hornets on Dec. 23. The Celtics are wrapping up a five-game homestand and didn’t have Irving available for Monday’s win over Brooklyn, registering a sixth victory in seven games. Terry Rozier should again fill in after finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Boston tied a franchise record with 16 blocks in the win, led by Al Horford’s six rejections. The Hornets have won five of seven. The ‘under’ is 4-1 in the Celtics’ last five contests and 6-2 in Charlotte’s last eight. These teams have split their regular-season meetings thus far and will square off one last time on March 23.

Denver at New Orleans, 8:05 p.m. ET: The Pelicans come off an impressive upset of the Rockets on Tuesday night, cashing as a +900 underdog behind big games from guard Jrue Holiday and center Jahlil Okafor. We’ll see if reinforcements are in store on the second night of a back-to-back since forward Julius Randle, guard Elfrid Payton and wing E’Twaun Moore are all listed as questionable here. New Orleans beat Denver 125-115 on Nov. 17 behind Anthony Davis’ 40 points but may not see their superstar wear their uniform again since he’s issued a trade demand and is currently sidelined with a finger injury. The Nuggets will be without point guard Jamal Murray, who is nursing an ankle sprain, so Will Barton and Gary Harris will enjoy heightened roles. Denver’s 95-92 comeback win over Memphis on Monday marked the first time in seven games where the Nuggets failed to reach the century mark ending a 7-0 ‘over’ run. Despite all the attrition, the last three Pels’ games have surpassed the posted total.

Indiana at Washington, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Pacers haven’t seen life without Victor Oladipo go smoothly as they come into D.C. losers of consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 18-19 after a 132-100 blowout home loss at the hands of Golden State on Monday. Indiana is opening a four-game road trip that takes them to Orlando immediately after this one for a game tomorrow night. It hasn’t dropped three in a row all season. Washington comes off a brutal road loss in Cleveland in a game where they trailed by as many as 25 points to a team that entered Tuesday night with the NBA’s worst record. The Wizards trimmed the deficit to three points before fizzling out on the last possessions but Scott Brooks kept his ineffective regulars on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, improving the team’s chances of pulling out a win here. Indy won the most recent meeting between these teams 105-89 on Dec. 23, outrebounding Washington 57-37. Getting worked on the boards has been a season-long issue for the Wizards. Tyreke Evans, who replaced Oladipo in the starting lineup, is questionable with a back issue.

Atlanta at Sacramento, 10:05 p.m. ET: These teams remain 1-2 in pace after residing atop the NBA in that metric for most of the season, so a track meet is expected in this rematch as this is by far the highest total on Wednesday, opening at 233 before being bet up to 236.5 and rising. The Kings won the first meeting in Atlanta 146-115 on Nov. 1 behind D’Aaron Fox’s 31 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists as he got the better of rookie Trae Young. The Hawks are on the fourth leg of a season-long seven-game road trip and have defeated the Bulls and Clippers already while losing in Portland. Despite how fast the Kings operate, the ‘under’ is 10-0-1 in their games since Jan. 7. Sacramento is looking to avoid slipping under .500 after falling out of the Western Conference’s top eight.

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

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