Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Friday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Portland at Toronto (-5, 226.5), 8:05 ET, ESPN

The Trail Blazers are the team we choose to overlook.

Maybe it’s because they’re tucked in the Pacific Northwest and they seemingly operate in stealth mode due to the shadow cast by the Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder and Rockets, but the five-game winning streak they’ve put together now has them even with OKC behind conference leaders Golden State and Denver. No one has a longer run going entering Friday night’s action. The five-game surge has seen them cover every game, opening with a 129-107 rout of the Warriors just before the All-Star break and featuring a perfect run on the road through Eastern Conference competition.

Portland posted double-digit routs in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Cleveland before compounding Boston’s misfortune with Wednesday night’s 97-92 victory. Its’ seven-game trip continues in Canada tonight before stops in Charlotte and Memphis on Sunday and Tuesday. If the Blazers handle business as an underdog for the fourth time on their current run, they’ll be favored to complete a perfect road on the run and will be the talk of the NBA entering next Thursday’s nationally-televised home date against Oklahoma City.

The Trail Blazers are making themselves impossible to overlook.

They should already have wanted posters splattered throughout post offices in East cities given their 18-4 record against the conference. Considering there’s more depth at the top than there’s been in years, that’s impressive. If they sweep the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors, they’ll win a sixth straight contest for the first time since capturing 13 wins in a row between Feb. 14-March 18, similarly starting the streak just before the All-Star break and coming out of it with 12 consecutive conquests. The difference is that they were at home for nine of those wins, but it is a reminder we were having conversations about how seriously to take Portland last March and it wound up swept out of the first-round by a Pelicans team they couldn’t match up with.

The Blazers have added another quality offensive center in Enes Kanter and also just added Rodney Hood to try and strengthen the bench, but they’re largely the same group. Forward Jake Layman has taken a step forward. Moe Harkless has been an x-factor since getting healthy during this run after having knee surgery last March, coming up with a season-high 17 points and 10 boards in Wednesday’s upset in Boston. Still, this remains a team reliant on the smallish backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Will there always be a ceiling?

Another test against a quality team like the Raptors, who went 8-1 in February and own one of the league’s top frontcourts, will give us another opportunity to see how they measure up, though Kanter (migraine) and Evan Turner (knee) will miss this contest. With Harkless back, they'll try and withstand the absences via Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Layman, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard. It will be a huge test since the versatility provided by Kawhi Leonard, Most Improved Player lock Pascal Siakam and centers Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol is Toronto’s biggest weapon.

Portland won the first meeting 122-118 on Dec. 14, outrebounding the Raps 38-37 and holding on despite being outscored 72-70 in the second half. Kyle Lowry was absent for that game, so the Blazers will have to deal with Toronto’s All-Star point guard in addition to Gasol. Their bench was the difference, outscoring the Raptors’ 58-26. Collins and Leonard, expected to see minutes decrease with Kanter on board and Harkless back, combined for 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting and seven boards. Nik Stauskas, who scored 13 points in that game, has since been traded to Cleveland for Hood.

Like Portland, the Raps also come off a win over Boston, beating them at home on Tuesday as Leonard and Siakam combined for 46 points in a 118-95 rout. Toronto led by as much as 31 points after pulling away thanks to an 18-0 second-quarter run. It made 17 3-pointers, one off its career-high. Lowry looks healthy, dishing out 11 assists. Gasol looked as engaged as he has since arriving from Memphis, contributing five points, five rebounds and eight assists in just over 23 minutes. They recovered from 113-98 rout suffered on Sunday and should be well-rested since this will be only their fourth game out of the break and all have been at home. Toronto has won 15 of 17 overall at the newly renamed Scotiabank Arena, where their 26-6 mark ranks behind only Denver and Milwaukee in home winning percentage. Portland is looking to even its road mark at 15-15, which would mark the first time since November that it is back at .500 in away games.

The Blazers had their 26-game run of scoring over 100 points snapped in Wednesday’s win over Boston. The ‘over’ has connected in nine of Portland’s last 13 contests.

Best of the Rest

Charlotte at Brooklyn, 7:35 p.m. ET: The Hornets now have company atop the Southeast Division since Orlando’s upset of Golden State got them even in the standings. Kemba Walker had a tremendous game against the Warriors earlier in the week but missed a huge shot that would’ve tied it down the stretch. He’s come up empty in defending the home floor in Charlotte against the defending champs and the Rockets, but always relishes being back in his native New York and seems to be out of a slump that sabotaged his All-Star Game experience. This is the first time since just prior to that weekend that he’ll be shooting outside Spectrum Center, looking to get even after last Friday night’s 117-115 home loss to the Nets. Walker’s 32 points were overcome by D’Angelo Russell’s 40. Brooklyn’s All-Star scored the final 12 points in tying a career-high and will have guard Spencer Dinwiddie back to lend a hand for the first time since tearing ligaments in his thumb on Jan. 23. Brooklyn’s upset win last week ended a three-game losing streak at the hands of the Hornets. The Nets have standout wing Caris LeVert back from a horrific ankle injury and have seen him show flashes of his early form despite the fact he’s coming off an 0-for-5 showing in Wednesday’s loss to Washington, the Nets’ fourth home loss in six games following a 13-1 run from Dec. 7-Jan. 29. The ‘over’ is 6-2 in Brooklyn’s last eight games and has connected in four of the last five involving Charlotte.

Washington at Boston, 8:05 p.m. ET: The Celtics are on a season-long four-game losing streak and have dropped six consecutive games in which Kyrie Irving has participated in, putting a disconnect between himself and teammates on full display for anyone that hadn’t already been paying attention. The Wizards come in as a dangerous underdog despite missing John Wall and having moved on from Otto Porter and Markieff Morris. New guys like Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker know the Celtics have been public enemy No. 1 for Washington for years and like to mix it up. The Wizards are just 8-16 on the road after winning in Brooklyn, having been led by Bradley Beal’s 31 points, wrapping up a February that saw him average over 30. Wall was the driving force last time these teams played each other on Dec. 12, finishing with 34 points and 13 assists, but Irving scored 38 and the Celtics won 130-125. Maybe seeing Washington’s porous defense will help Boston get going. The Wizards have seen the ‘over’ connect in 10 straight games as they’ve averaged 120.5 points while surrendering 125.5 in that stretch. The high-side has connected in 12 of 13.

L.A. Clippers at Sacramento, 10:05 p.m. ET: The Kings have dropped consecutive games and are in danger of falling back down to .500 with 20 games remaining if they fail to protect their home floor tonight. The Clippers and Spurs are even at 34-29 and take up residence in the final two playoffs pots in the Western Conference, 2.5 games up on ninth-place Sacramento and an additional game up on the Lakers (30-31). The Kings took their best shot at the Bucks in Wednesday’s 141-140 OT loss and are 1-3 since action resumed post-break, claiming only an upset in Oklahoma City. This will be their first game as a favorite, but they must overcome the absence of standout rookie forward Marvin Bagley III, who suffered a knee sprain against Milwaukee and will be out at least a week. L.A. beat Sacramento 122-108 on Jan. 27 behind 25 points from Montrezl Harrell and can sweep the season-series 4-0 with a road upset. The Clips have averaged 127.3 points per game in the three victories and the ‘over’ has gone 2-0-1. The high-side has hit in five of the last seven involving L.A. Opening at 240, this is expected to close as the largest total of the evening.

Milwaukee at L.A. Lakers, 10:35 p.m. ET:The Lakers finally got on the board after the All-Star break, surviving New Orleans at Staples in part because Anthony Davis sat the last quarter-and-a-half. LeBron James sealed the win with a huge 3-pointers and finished with 33 points and 10 assists, but we’ll see how he fares against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been bothered by a sore right knee this week and many not play his full complement of minutes. The Bucks are exercising caution with their star, a luxury they can afford since they own the NBA’s best record. This presents L.A. with a golden opportunity to steal a game as an underdog to offset some of the bad losses they’ve suffered over the past few weeks. Considering how challenging their remaining schedule is, the Lakers will need to pull off a few upsets to avoid missing the playoffs. Lonzo Ball (ankle) remains sidelined and Lance Stephenson (toe) won’t play, while the Bucks will be without backup point guard George Hill (groin). These teams have yet to play this season and will meet again at Fiserv Forum on March 19. Eric Bledsoe comes off a triple-double in the Bucks’ OT win in Sacramento and scored a game-high 39 points in last March’s 124-122 win over the Lakers in the last meeting between these franchises. Antetokounmpo may again be kept to about 24 minutes for maintenance reasons and probably won’t play in Utah on Saturday night if he participates. The ‘under’ has delivered in five of the last seven involving the Bucks.

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

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