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Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 13:59 PM

Thursday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Houston (-2.5, 233) at L.A. Lakers, 10:35 ET, TNT

Rockets point guard Chris Paul says he “forgot about” the incident with Rajon Rondo back on Oct. 20 that resulted in a skirmish. The new Lakers’ floor general was ruled to have spit on Paul, whether by accident or intentionally, and ended up suspended for two games while Paul was shelved for one after both threw punches.

Three months later, Houston and L.A. will square off again at Staples Center as NBA action resumes after the All-Star break. The teams have seen one another twice at the Toyota Center since that early-season start, resulting in a pair of high-scoring Rockets’ victories, only one of which came in a game LeBron James participated in. Rondo missed both games and Paul only played once, so Thursday night’s contest will certainly be a reunion.

Adding to the party will be the return of Rockets center Clint Capela, who will be back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 13 after undergoing thumb surgery. James Harden, Paul and Capela, Houston’s “Big Three,” will be on the court together for the first since Dec. 20. Considering Harden has made no secret that he’s grown weary of the hero-ball act that has helped keep the Rockets afloat while his most talented teammates have been on the mend, Capela’s return couldn’t come at a better time.





Although he shot just 4-for-13 and finished with only eight points in the All-Star Game, Harden’s run of 30-point games remains intact at 31 games, tying Wilt Chamberlain’s second-longest streak in league history. The NBA’s leading scorer (36.6 ppg), Harden has played through shoulder issues and some knee soreness, but has legitimately strapped the Rockets to his back in order to keep them in position for a top-four seed in the Western Conference. As action starts back up, Houston leads the Southwest Division by a game over the Spurs and is just one game back of the Trail Blazers for the No. 4 seed.

The Lakers are one game below .500 for the first time since Nov. 7, on the outside looking in as far as the West playoff race is concerned. L.A. is playing at Staples for the first time since facing off against their co-tenants, the Clippers, back on Jan. 31. The Grammy Awards displaced them for weeks, resulting in a 1-4 stretch that has closed with a demoralizing 117-113 loss in Atlanta on Feb. 12, adding the Southeast Division’s cellar dweller to a list of teams they’ve had no business losing to. If the Lakers ultimately miss the playoffs, you’ll be able to point to setbacks against the Hawks, Knicks, Cavs, Grizzlies and Wizards as to why. The Orlando Magic have swept them.

While the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, James has reached the postseason 13 straight years, last missing out back in 2005, his second season as a pro. He says he’s already “activated” playoff-level intensity, declaring himself about 90 percent despite lingering concern that the groin strain that resulted in the longest injury-related absence of his career isn’t fully healed.

“I fall in love with being uncomfortable. This is another uncomfortable thing for me and I love it,” James said on Wednesday. “My level of intensity has to be (high), unfortunately for me because I don’t like to do it at such an early time. I’m a little bit different, but it’s been activated.”

After hosting Houston, the Lakers close February with a home-and-home against the Pelicans sandwiched around a trip to Memphis to face the depleted Grizzlies. All of those games are winnable, so it’s important L.A. hits the ground running considering March’s schedule looks far more daunting.

The Rockets have won all three meetings against the Lakers this season, averaging 129.3 points per game. Harden has averaged 44.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists, so he’ll be looking for another big night to help fuel a sweep that would be only their second over L.A. in franchise history (2015-16). Although Capela is back, Houston isn’t at full strength since trade deadline acquisition Iman Shumpert will miss this week’s action due to knee soreness.

L.A. point guard Lonzo Ball remains out with an ankle issue, but wing Josh Hart (knee) and newly acquired stretch-four Mike Muscala (ankle) will be available. Backup center Tyson Chandler is listed as questionable due to a stiff neck.

Expect James to be surrounded by Brandon Ingram, JaVale McGee, Rondo and another new acquisition, shooter Reggie Bullock, who the Lakers picked up from Detroit in exchange for rookie shooter Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick.

All three meeting between these teams have resulted in games that have surpassed the posted total. The first number was the largest (238), while the most recent meetings have each seen the total close under 230, so tonight’s figure should be the second-highest involving these teams this season. The ‘over’ is 5-2-1 in Rockets’ games since Jan. 29 and is 3-1 in Lakers’ games. L.A. has seen at least 225 points scored in its games in 10 of its past 12, an indication the team’s defense has left much to be desired.

Houston visits Golden State on Saturday night and is in the midst of a stretch where it is playing six of eight away from home, closing with visits to Boston and Toronto. While Mike D’Antoni has his team largely back intact, they’re maybe an adjustment period in place since Paul and Capela will still be getting to know guys like Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried, who were signed to help fill in while they were out. The Lakers are hoping a little rust can help their cause as they look to avoid their 30th loss of the season. L.A. is 1-5 SU and ATS as a home underdog, beating only Denver on Oct. 25.

Best of the Rest

Miami at Philadelphia, 7:05 p.m. ET: Sixers center Joel Embiid is dealing with knee soreness that is expected to keep him out for at least a week, so the Heat won’t have to deal with Philadelphia’s All-Star big man, its leading scorer and rebounder. Miami, tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with Detroit and just a half-game back of Charlotte for the Southeast Division lead, may also have starting point guard Goran Dragic back in the mix as he looks to return from a knee injury that has limited him to seven games since November and has kept him out since Dec. 12. Athletic forward Derrick Jones, Jr. is also expected to return after practicing fully, so the Heat should be at full strength as they attempt to snap a four-game losing streak in Philadelphia. The ‘under’ has hit in six of the last eight 76ers games.

Portland at Brooklyn, 7:35 p.m. ET: Damian Lillard is legitimately questionable with a left ankle sprain, which means the Trail Blazers may be opening back up for business without their lone All-Star. Portland is opening up a seven-game stretch of road games and will have played just three of 16 games at Moda Center by the time March 16 rolls around. If Lillard can’t go, C.J. McCollum will become the primary ball handler and Evan Turner, Seth Curry and Rodney Hood will be in line for more minutes. The Blazers signed center Enes Kanter to backup Jusuf Nurkic and should have him debut tonight. The Nets remain without injured sixth man Spencer Dinwiddie (finger), but are otherwise back at full strength with wings Rodions Kurucs (elbow), Jared Dudley (hamstring) and Treveon Graham (personal) all available for minutes. Emerging standout Caris LeVert and shooter Allen Crabbe are back in the mix. The ‘over’ has connected in nine of 12 involving Portland and in four straight Nets’ games. Portland has won eight of 10 over Brooklyn but the teams haven't played since Nov. 2017.

Boston at Milwaukee, 8:05 p.m. ET: Giannis Antetokounmpo was headed to his first All-Star Game MVP trophy before his team collapsed, but he’s still an MVP frontrunner driving the team with the NBA’s top record. Although he appeared on the injury report with knee soreness, the “Greek Freak” will be out there for this Eastern Conference showdown. Kyrie Irving, who has been in and out of the lineup with his own knee issues, will also play and start, while backup Terry Rozier (illness) will be in the mix as well. The Bucks have won eight of nine and 14 of 16 overall, while the Celtics are 12-3 over their last 15. Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle during a Tuesday workout and is considered “day to day,” while rookie center Robert Williams may be back in the lineup. Nikola Mirotic, acquired from the Pelicans at the trade deadline, is expected to make his team debut after healing from a calf injury. This will be the only meeting of the season between the teams in Milwaukee, so the Celtics will be playing at Fiserv Forum for the first time. The teams split game on Nov. 1 and Dec. 21, with the Bucks winning the most recent meeting 120-107. Both games have gone ‘over.’

Sacramento at Golden State, 10:35 p.m. ET:The Warriors will be extending DeMarcus Cousins’ minutes, so we’re going to get a clearer indication of what to expect from their new-look group over the next few months. Cousins will be facing his former team for the first time, squaring off with ex-teammates Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos. The Kings have a winning record, ranking ninth in the Western Conference as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06, having struggled throughout the Cousins’ era. Golden State leads the West again, so this could be a potential preview of a first-round series. The Dubs have won the first three meetings between the teams, although Sacramento has covered each time. The Kings have lost by one point, five points and four points and actually swept last season’s meetings in Oakland, so they’ve played the defending champs tough of late. Former Warrior Harrison Barnes has been handed a major role upon his arrival from Dallas, while Sacramento also picked up guard Alec Burks and veteran defensive wing Corey Brewer, so this should be a fun, wide open affair. Golden State is looking to avoid consecutive losses for the first time in 2019. The ‘under’ is on a 14-2-1 run in Kings games.

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

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