Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:56 AM

Weekly Essentials

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Buying Portland -- Again

The Trail Blazers squandered a 21-point lead and lost to the unbeaten 76ers despite entering the fourth quarter up 10 points. Still, the loss was indicative of a team capable of doing serious damage in a season where the throne is open and the current favorite has never so much as reached the Western Conference finals.

Portland looks like the real deal as a title contender. This sounds strange since they were written off as third-best in the Northwest Division by everyone coming into the season, including me.

Damian Lillard is averaging nearly 30 points per game through his first six contests, shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range.

Although unassuming as a .500 team entering the week, it’s important to consider that the Blazers have dropped a home game to the Nuggets in their opener, a 3-point result at the Spurs where they were playing in a third different arena over a four-night span and Saturday’s disappointing defeat against the Sixers.

Portland led for the majority of the night and looked to have survived its late collapse when Damian Lillard found Anfernee Simons alone in the corner for a 3-pointer that put the Blazers back up 128-126 with 2.2 second left. Furkan Korkmaz may have become the new favorite curse word for Portland fans when he buried an unlikely game-winner with .4 left to move Philly to 5-0, but his heroics may drive a team that learned an early lesson about finishing.

Even though the 76ers was missing the suspended Joel Embiid, the Blazers were playing without starting center Hassan Whiteside, who should be back from a knee soreness this week. They aren’t expected to get center Jusuf Nurkic back from his ACL tear until February and will now be without Zack Collins for a substantial period after he opted for shoulder surgery.

Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja and Skal Labissiere helped Portland build that enormous lead against Philadelphia.

That sentence says a lot. At some point in March, we’re going to be talking about a playoff team led by one of the NBA’s top backcourts in Lillard and C.J. McCollum that is suddenly extraordinarily deep up front. Nurkic and Collins will be back. Pau Gasol should be available. Whiteside hopes to be at 100 percent after sustaining a pair of preseason ankle injuries.

The current odds at Westgate have the Trail Blazers getting 30-to-1 to win the West and 50-to-1 to win a title. I’d take a shot at those.

Lillard is 30-to-1 to win MVP, which goes hand-in-hand keeping the team afloat over the next few months.

Following Monday’s game at slumping Golden State, the Blazers will visit the Clippers on Thursday night before hosting Kyrie Irving’s Nets on Friday, so the spotlight will be on them this week as they try to overcome being short-handed. They’re going on a six-game road trip in the middle of the month, so there may be some bumps ahead, but I think I’ve seen enough from the Blazers already to be higher on them than I have been over the past few seasons. Their offseason acquisitions were underrated.

Portland also dodged a huge bullet when Rodney Hood avoided a major injury after knocking knees with Ben Simmons in the fourth quarter. He was unable to get back to the locker room under his own power, but the Athletic’s Jason Quick reported that team doctors found no structural damage and he should be in the mix going forward. Between Hood, offseason acquisition Kent Bazemore, Hezonja and Simons, there’s a lot of depth on the wing too.

Simons, a 20-year old named after Penny because his parents were big Orlando Magic fans, scored 37 points in his only start last season and has gotten into every game so far. He earned the right to be on the floor in closing time with Hood out and made the most of it. Portland now has another shooter it now knows it can count on so his development is worth keeping an eye on.

Whiteside had a 19-rebound game against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in his debut and opened 15-for-17 from the field over his first two games, so he’s going to be an important x-factor going forward. Collins’ surgery means the Blazers will be more reliant on Whiteside staying healthy and avoiding foul trouble, but he’s the type who responds well to being relied upon.

Issues in Miami developed in part because Erik Spoelstra preferred to count on the steadier Bam Adebayo down the stretch. Whiteside was often too invested in finding a groove and not moving the ball. He was also a 45-percent free-throw shooter last season. He’s currently up at a career-best 77.8 percent. If that’s not an aberration, that’s a major development.

Keep an eye on these Blazers. There’s potential for something special if it all comes together.

What’s going on with…?

Russell Westbrook -46

 There are going to be nights where the Rockets don’t click and the high-volume pace they employ blows up in their face, but it was still surreal to watch it all materialize as Miami built a 46-14 edge up after 12 minutes, the third-largest lead of the shot-clock era that dates back 60-plus years. Duncan Robinson played a starring role for the Heat, whose ball movement throughout the season has been exquisite. It got to 59-18 and among all the eye-popping numbers that we saw, it was Westbrook’s plus-minus that loomed ugliest.

The Rockets have struggled defensively and need to click over the next few weeks to truly flourish with their style, because when things aren’t clicking, things have the potential to go south emphatically. Westbrook started 1-for-9. His only 3-pointer came on a heave. More than any other member of the Rockets, he’s got to figure out how to play to his strengths and make the likes of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House more effective.

Westbrook is taking the night off Monday on the second night of a back-to-back and needs to carefully study where he can be more of an asset. Games against the Grizzlies, Warriors and Bulls offer the Rockets an opportunity to pick up victories as they continue figuring things out before the schedule intensifies. A pair of games against the Clippers, a visit to Denver and home games with the Pacers, Blazers, Mavs, Heat and Hawks are on tap to close the month, so it’s important for the Rockets to pick up their gimmes.

The Warriors

Rip up all your tickets backing Golden State to return to the playoffs or surpass their projected win total of 46.5. That money is gone. Stephen Curry isn’t going to rush back from a broken hand and may not make it back this season at all since the team is giving it a full three months before making a determination on bringing him back. The inaugural season at the Chase Center is going to feature plenty of wins as parting gifts for the visitors, with the Clippers, Suns and Spurs having all left the new building smiling after authoring double-digit blowouts.

Draymond Green, probably grieving the fact he won’t be playing much meaningful basketball this season, is taking time off with a finger injury. You can expect to see Klay Thompson cruise as far as his recovery period is concerned, which is probably the right decision. Golden State won’t be relevant this season and appears headed for 60 losses. There will be a decision to make on D’Angelo Russell, who will likely be moved to a contender. For now, these will be his Warriors to help Green lead, doubling as an audition for teams who view him worthy of a long-term investment. Golden State will showcase him, seeking an attractive package, but there may not be enough help around him to keep him from inefficient performances.

Rookie forward Eric Paschall and rookie guard Jordan Poole are going to play major minutes. Circumstances have dictated that the Warriors tank and they’re smartly following suit. After hosting the Blazers, they’ll at least leave town enough to spare the new arena some, playing 13 of 17 on the road from Nov. 6- Dec. 6. The Warriors should cover a few games due to how big the numbers are likely to get as the market reacts to their temporary demise, but the real fun may come in seeing how high they go. If Westbrook is back and Russell remains out, I could see the Rockets laying at least 16 points. That Nov. 13 game at the Lakers won’t be the showcase we expected when the season tipped.

That KAT Fight

It was surprising to see Simmons get no games despite choking Karl-Anthony Towns after his skirmish with Embiid. Both combatants got two-game suspensions, which also seemed on the light side given the fact punches were thrown. The 76ers and Timberwolves each got victories without their star big men immediately after their clash so both have to feel fortunate. The teams meet in Minneapolis on March 24 in a game where we could see Philly arrive in town intent on wrecking the Timberwolves’ postseason aspirations. You can count on the rematch being hyped on Twitter. Early line: Sixers -3.5.

Injuries to Monitor

Hawks PG Trae Young is hoping to return Tuesday against the Spurs, setting up a great matchup with Dejounte Murray, who is still working with a minutes restriction but continues to impress. Heat F Justise Winslow is dealing with a back issue but should return to fortify an exceptionally deep Miami team that looks like a nice buy at 12-to-1 to win the East. Derrick Rose has done a nice job off the Pistons' bench as they try to navigate the first few weeks without injured PF Blake Griffin but he's now dealing with a hamstring issue too. Bruce Brown will play a larger role. The Pacers have Domantas Sabonis dealing with a calf contusion lingering into this week but need him back since center Myles Turner is out a few weeks with an ankle sprain. Rookie Goga Bitadze has already been asked to put in work and has looked capable. Props to Kevin Pritchard. The Grizzlies will be missing Jaren Jackson Jr. with a knee injury to open the week, creating more opportunities for center Jonas Valanciunas and rookie Brandon Clarke.

Games to Watch

Monday - Bucks at Timberwolves

With Towns suspended, the Timberwolves are playing with house money as they try and pull off an upset. Jeff Teague led a balanced effort to help blow out the Wizards in the first game minus Towns and will need to control pace and keep everyone involved, so expect his matchup with Eric Bledsoe to decide things. Robert Covington, Gorgui Dieng and Jarrett Bell will look to try and contain Antetokounmpo, who has averaged 27 points, 13.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists on the road this season.

Tuesday - Heat at Nuggets

Jimmy Butler has been credited with fostering the unselfish spirit that has helped the Heat off to their great start, but it has also helped to have Bam Adebayo out there as the glue. The Heat center will have an opportunity to open everyone’s eyes against Nikola Jokic here, but he’ll have to monitor his aggression early to avoid being taken out of the game by foul trouble. If he’s able to play 30-plus minutes, the Heat should be able to hang on the road in Denver.

Wednesday - 76ers at Jazz

Embiid will be back for this one and immediately tangles with Rudy Gobert, who really enjoyed that Embiid-Towns fight, going to the popcorn emoji on social media. He’s held Embiid to 43 percent shooting over four career meetings, and it’s worth noting that the 18.8 points he’s averaged against the Jazz is fourth-lowest among the 29 teams he’s played against.

Thursday - Trail Blazers at Clippers

Kawhi Leonard has gotten off to a phenomenal start but continues to prioritize taking care of his body. That means you can count on him not playing in back-to-backs, which means he’ll miss this game if he played against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Wednesday.

Friday - 76ers at Nuggets

Embiid shot just 4-for-17 in his last outing against Denver but was still a plus-13 despite Nikola Jokic finishing with a 27-point triple-double. Philadelphia won 117-110 last February and will be looking to test itself in the final stop on a four-game road trip to open November.

Saturday - Celtics at Spurs

This looks like a good spot for San Antonio, which catches Boston on the final leg of a three-game roadie that opens Tuesday at Cleveland. After falling to the Lakers on Sunday in their first home loss, the Spurs will be looking to bounce back with home games against the Thunder, Celtics and Grizzlies.

Sunday - Raptors at Lakers

Sunday games between these two teams evoke memories of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point night, but we probably won’t see anything that special here. Instead, we can look forward to watching LeBron James deal with Pascal Siakam, a new breed of forward who is blossoming in his new role replacing Leonard as Toronto’s driving force.

Free Winner

Thursday - Celtics at Hornets

Kemba Walker returns to Charlotte, which means we’ll see one of the league’s most storied franchises go into the Queen City with something to prove. Injuries to Enes Kanter and Jaylen Brown have supplied early obstacles but Boston is still off to a nice start and should handle business as a road favorite on Friday against Terry Rozier and the young Hornets. Charlotte fared well on their recent west coast road trip, which should contribute to helping keep the spread manageable.

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