Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Friday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Portland at Denver (-6.5, 216), 10:35 ET, ESPN

Denver is closing in on its first Northwest Division title since 2010 and hasn’t won a series since ’09, so this has the makings of a special season if this group can finish strong. Of course, Game 79 is still early enough to become the beginning of the end.

The Nuggets have beaten the Blazers twice already this season, so all they need to clinch the Northwest is to pick up a victory here or on Sunday in Portland to wrap things up since that would give them a head-to-head tiebreaker if the teams wound up even. They’re closing in on at least the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, guaranteeing they wouldn’t run into a Warriors team they’ve led for just seven minutes the last three times the teams have faced one another. Getting past the Rockets wouldn’t be easy, but that’s what makes getting homecourt advantage in that potential series so vital.

Everything could still fall apart if Denver continues to falter down the stretch, particularly if the new-look Blazers can successfully sweep this weekend home-and-home. It’s looking increasingly likely that Golden State will recapture the No.1 seed after losing it to Houston last season, while the Rockets enter Friday’s action ahead in the Southwest and up a half-game on Portland for the No. 3 seed. Things have played out this way in part due to the Nuggets’ disappointing finishing kick, which has seen them lose four of their last seven to hand conference supremacy back to the Warriors.

Despite getting healthier with Will Barton and Gary Harris returning to action after lengthy absences, Denver is just 15-11 since Feb. 4. Holding leads have been a problem, which has required Nikola Jokic to play hero late in games to help the team avoid choking away even more games than it has. The Nuggets are 11-15 ATS over the past two months and have had trouble getting baskets when they most need them. They were held to just 28 points in a 95-90 win over Washington before losing in Oakland and have scored 102 or fewer points in five of their last seven.

With back-to-back games against Portland followed by a trip to Utah, Denver has an opportunity to pick up some confidence by registering a quality win or two, but that’s where it really has to be careful here. Unlike the Warriors, Rockets, Jazz or Blazers, this team has very little postseason experience. Only Paul Millsap has played in truly significant games, so the Nuggets’ late-season slippage is troublesome as the playoffs approach.

A rough stretch over the next few days could foil the Nuggets’ entire season.

Denver does come off an impressive 113-85 rout of the Spurs to bounce back from their latest disappointing duel with Golden State, so that’s certainly a good sign going forward since it played one of its sharpest contests of 2018-19. The defense held San Antonio to 38 percent shooting in surrendering a season-low in points while the offense registered a season-best 41 assists.

The Trail Blazers are going to look much different than they did when they last came through town on Jan. 13. Denver got big plays in the final two minutes from Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray to win 116-113, overcoming 26 points from Damian Lillard. Shooting guard C.J. McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic combined for 40 points in the loss, but neither will be a part of Friday’s matchup due to injuries. McCollum is still working his way back from a knee injury suffered a few weeks ago and will make the trip to Denver but won’t suit up. Nurkic suffered a horrific season-ending injury against Brooklyn on March 25, but Portland has managed to survive without two starters and has won 11 of its last 13.

Rodney Hood has filled in for McCollum and Enes Kanter is filling the center vacancy, so both newcomers have gained valuable reps with their new teammates that should serve them well in the playoffs. McCollum is getting closer to a return, but he won’t be rushed back. He’s led the Blazers in scoring against Denver, averaging 25.5 points over the two losses, while Lillard has struggled with his shot, coming in 14-for-37, including 5-for-18 from 3-point range. Jokic got the better of Nurkic in the most recent game, landing him in foul trouble while making 15 of 23 shots to finish with 40 points. Kanter isn’t known as a great defender, so he should have another big game as the team’s primary facilitator regardless of how Terry Stotts approaches coverage.

The Blazers will have Zach Collins in place behind Kanter to try and slow Jokic down and may have to dust off Meyers Leonard, who has been stuck in Stotts’ doghouse. Evan Turner has come up with consecutive triple-doubles off the bench and will be the x-factor here since a second unit’s ability to help the visitors hang in there in Denver’s altitude is so vital to winning there. At 32-7, Denver’s home record is second-best in the NBA behind Milwaukee (32-6). The Trail Blazers are 20-19 on the road.

Denver has won five straight against Portland, last losing in Nov. 2017. It has won four consecutive games at Pepsi Center against the Blazers, last losing in October of ’16. While the Nuggets have a tough game at the Jazz following this home-and-home, Portland closes with the Lakers and Kings, so running the table and finishing as high as No. 2 is certainly possible despite its injury woes.

The ‘under’ is 18-3 over Denver’s last 21 games since action resumed after the All-Star break. The number here (216) is in the neighborhood of where it resided in the first two encounters (214, 217) between these teams.

Best of the Rest

Boston at Indiana, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Celtics may have ruined the Heat’s hopes of making the playoffs by sweeping a home-and-home from them and put themselves in position to claim homecourt advantage in a 4-5 series between these two that will start up in roughly 8-9 days. Indiana can still finish ahead of Boston by winning here and gaining a split of the four matchups this season but are hoping to have point guard Darren Collison and shooting guard Wes Matthews back in the starting backcourt after both returned to practice on Thursday. Both will be game-time decisions here and would be replaced by Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans if they can’t go. Al Horford should continue to play through knee soreness and comes off his second career triple-double in Boston’s 110-105 win in Miami on Wednesday. Neither Marcus Morris (knee) and Jaylen Brown (back) participated in South Florida and aren’t expected to play here, leaving more touches for Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward. Kyrie Irving won the most recent meeting between the teams on March 29, clinching a 114-112 victory on a layup with 0.5 left to close out a 30-point night. Bojan Bogdanovic led Indy with 27 points. The Pacers had lost four straight home games against the Celtics before winning 102-101 back on Nov. 3. They last won consecutive home games against Boston back in ’15-’16.

Detroit at Oklahoma City, 8:05 p.m. ET: The availability of Blake Griffin will decide just how competitive the Pistons can be in Oklahoma City. Considering how much Detroit’s All-Star loves playing in his home state, we’ll know this sore knee is a bigger issue than Detroit is letting on if he doesn’t suit up. The Pistons have been lost without him this week, dropping a pair of games against Indiana while looking atrocious on the offensive end without their primary catalyst to play through. They’re 1-5 without him this season. Expect word of his availability to come prior to warm-ups, making this a late call, handicapping-wise. One angle to potentially jump on is a low score considering the ‘under’ is 13-6-1 over OKC’s last 20 games due to its inconsistent shooting, although the 119 points it managed in Tuesday’s rout of the Lakers was its largest output since March 7. The Thunder are seventh in the West and may be satisfied with slotting in against a likely matchup with Denver by finishing seventh, but still must finish ahead of the Spurs so they’ll be all in here. Despite this week’s struggles, Detroit’s grasp on the No. 6 seed has been strengthened by other results. Oklahoma City won in Detroit 110-83 on Dec. 3.

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

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