Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:00 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - San Antonio at Sacramento (-1.5, 227), 10:05 ET, NBATV

The Spurs weren’t supposed to be ahead in the Southwest Division when their annual “Rodeo Road Trip” came around this season, so they’ll be living out of their luggage playing with house money.

Don’t call it a free-roll though. There’s plenty at stake as the city’s pro basketball gets out of Dodge to make way for the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. This annual exodus has happened every year since 2003 and doubles as the time where Gregg Popovich likes to see his team truly gel in preparation for the latest title run after his group went 8-1 over the course of the first one, ultimately winning a championship.

With Kawhi Leonard out last season, the Spurs took the step back everyone had been expecting and prematurely counting on for years, so the trip has taken on a different feel. This season has come out of nowhere since not even Pop expected DeMar DeRozan to get so well acclimated immediately and the defensive capacity of Leonard and Danny Green to be adequately replaced.

Last season marked only the second losing “Rodeo trip” out of 18 excursions, producing a 2-4 finish in what was a brutal season by Spurs standards. They finished 47-35 and were swept out by Golden State and weren’t counted on to be among the Western Conference’s top-eight given LeBron James’ arrival and the expected emergence of teams like the Pelicans and Nuggets.

As this season’s eight-game roadie begins, the Spurs have won five consecutive contests and hold a one-game edge on the Rockets in the division. The rest of the division is stuck under .500 and few would expect the Pels, Mavs or Grizzlies to make a run, so it’s entirely conceivable that the Spurs will win the Southwest and potentially even open the playoffs at home. As the week opens, they rank fifth in the West and would play the Trail Blazers if the postseason opened today, but roughly 30 games remain for most and plenty remains to be decided.

With Chris Paul back and James Harden among the frontrunners for MVP, the Rockets will be expected to nose back out in front of San Antonio, which came into the season with 12-to-1 odds to win the Southwest Division according to the Westgate LV Superbook. Houston was a 1/10 favorite, which means you would’ve had to wager $1000 for every buck you wanted to win for it to come through. This would’ve been an awful bet and you’re being punished for making it if you did so.

For the rest of us, the Spurs’ resurgence has been a terrific story. Despite losing projected starting point guard Dejounte Murray in the preseason, Derrick White and Bryn Forbes have stepped up alongside veteran Patty Mills, while Rudy Gay has been incredibly efficient in his starting role alongside DeRozan and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, doing whatever has been asked of him.

San Antonio is 90-43 on this February roadie since ’03, which is absolutely remarkable considering what a challenge it is to win in opposing an arena. The Spurs’ winning percentage is .677.

For DeRozan, this annual trip will be a new experience, but most have already been through at least one of these roadies that Popovich counts on to improve camaraderie. Despite his team’s winning streak, the veteran head coach hasn’t been a happy camper, calling out his team for disrespecting the Suns with their lack of effort last week despite winning on a Gay jumper at the buzzer. San Antonio comes off a victory over depleted New Orleans, which had a chance to tie the game despite trailing by 22 points with just over five minutes remaining. The Pelicans have been victimized twice by the Spurs on their five-game run, while the team’s other wins have come against the Wizards, Nets and Suns. Only Brooklyn has a winning record among that group.

The level of competition intensifies since all but two of the eight opponents they’ll see before returning home to host the Pistons at the end of the month is currently over .500. After visiting the Kings, San Antonio will play at the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Jazz and Grizzlies prior to the All-Star break. The Spurs will resume action in Toronto on Feb. 22 before facing Brooklyn and New York on consecutive nights prior to returning to South Texas.

Getting off to a strong start in Sacramento is vital considering a back-to-back in Oakland and Portland awaits mid-week. The Spurs will be a heavy underdog in all their games this week with the exception of this one. They’re favored on the road for just the eighth time this season in this one and come in 4-3 SU/3-4 ATS in this situation.

San Antonio’s defense has slipped over the past month due to poor communication, so it’s not ideal that they’ll be without White, the point guard who has stepped up as an x-factor on both sides of the ball while serving as the team’s top on-ball defender. The Spurs have only held two opponents under 100 points over their last dozen games and will need their transition defense to come up a few notches to contain the Kings, who employ a pace faster than most NBA teams and bring a lot of athleticism to the mix, which is something the Spurs have struggled with.

Sacramento opens play this week just one game behind the Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It is a half-game up on the Lakers and look to continue making inroads on a six-game homestand that has opened with wins over the Hawks and 76ers.

The Rockets, Heat and Suns come into town after San Antonio, so this will be a crucial stretch for them as well. Rookie forward Marvin Bagley III has given the team a boost with his productive energy off the bench and is averaging 16.2 points and 10 rebounds over his last five games. After producing three triple-doubles between the start of the season and Jan. 12, Bagley has registered four over his last nine contests. Buddy Hield has also impressed in becoming a more consistent scorer and knocked down seven 3-pointers to help upset Philly on Saturday night, finishing with 34 points. Sacramento is 8-5 when he scored more than 25.

The Kings won the only meeting against the Spurs thus far this season, posting 104-99 win on Nov. 12 to snap a 14-game losing streak against San Antonio. They capitalized off turnovers, using their speed to create issues in overcoming DeRozan’s 23 points and eight boards. Bogdan Bogdanovic led Sacramento with 22 points. The ‘under’ connected in that game and has gone 11-1-1 over the last 13 Kings games. The Spurs have won an unbelievable 42 of 46 meetings between these teams since the last time they lost consecutive games – back in the 2006 first round of the playoffs. They’ll be look to avoid that fate tonight.

Best of the Rest

Denver at Detroit, 7:05 p.m. ET: The Nuggets opened the month with consecutive road losses but defeated Memphis and New Orleans last week, taking advantage of the attrition both are dealing with. The Nuggets have won six straight and will spend the rest of the week on the road, visiting Brooklyn and Philadelphia next. They list Jamal Murray as questionable with an ankle injury that has kept him out of five consecutive contests, while Gary Harris (groin) has been ruled out. Paul Millsap is also ‘questionable’ with an ankle injury. Detroit blew a huge early lead against the Clippers on Saturday and has dropped five of its past seven but finally has its entire team intact. They’ve been swept by Denver in the season series two of the past three years. Nikola Jokic had a triple-double and finished a team-high plus-15 in the most recent meeting last March, leading the Nuggets to a win despite Andre Drummond’s 21 points and 17 boards. The ‘under’ is 10-2-1 over Detroit’s last 13 games.

Milwaukee at Brooklyn, 7:35 p.m. ET: Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe is going to participate after sitting out Saturday night’s win at the Wizards, where Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton helped Giannis Antetokounmpo put the game out of reach inside three quarters. The Bucks have won and covered in three straight games after losing the opening game of a five-game roadie by losing in Oklahoma City. That setback snapped a six-game winning streak, so Milwaukee has won nine of 10 as they wrap up the trip by beating the Nets for the second time this season. “Greek Freak” finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the 129-115 win on Dec. 29. Milwaukee has won its last five in Brooklyn, a streak that dates back to 2015. Spencer Dinwiddie remains out with his finger injury and Caris LeVert isn’t back yet, so All-Star D’Angelo Russell may be doing the heavy lifting here. Not having Joe Harris available would limit the Nets options to adequately space the floor, so monitor his availability since he’s nursing a hip injury and is listed as ‘questionable.’

Indiana at New Orleans, 8:05 p.m. ET: The Pelicans pulled off one of the NBA's biggest upsets last Tuesday, cashing as a +900 underdog in Houston behind big games from guard Jrue Holiday and center Jahlil Okafor. Those two will again be the center of New Orleans' attack as it looks to keep the Pacers from winning at Smoothie King Arena for the third straight year. Forwards Anthony Davis, Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic join point guard Elfrid Payton and wing E’Twaun Moore remain sidelined. The Pacers finally won without Victor Oladipo on Saturday night in Miami to improve to 1-4 without their injured All-Star guard. Bojan Bogdanovic has stepped up offensivley while Tyreke Evans has returned after back pain kept him from effectively replacing Oladipo after being placed in his spot in the starting lineup. The 'under' is 7-2 over the past nine Indiana games.

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

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