Friday’s Essentials

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Game of the Night - 76ers at Nuggets, 9:05 p.m. ET

There are a pair of potential NBA Finals previews to dissect on Friday night – three if you’re a big believer in upstart Miami – so we’ll get an early look at how much passion these top contenders are bringing to the table during the season’s opening stretch.

You can find notes on Bucks-Jazz and Heat-Lakers below, but the most compelling matchup on the schedule features the 76ers closing out a four-game Western swing in Denver.

Not only does it feature the rare matchup pitting MVP candidates Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, it will also show us how Philadelphia intends to run offense without point guard Ben Simmons, who suffered a sprained AC joint in Wednesday’s loss in Utah and will be re-evaluated prior to Sunday’s home date with Charlotte.

It wouldn’t at all be surprising if this injury knocks him out a few games if the Sixers opt for the cautious approach with their All-Star point guard, especially since they’ll be favored at home against Hornets and Cavs without him and would probably be able to a handle a three-game mid-month roadie filled with stops in Orlando, Cleveland and Oklahoma City if he sat out.

Simmons has had a strange season in that he’s had seven steals in the same game twice already but still hasn’t attempted a single 3-pointer despite vowing to keep defenses honest by at least taking them. Now this shoulder thing may further derail that inclination. The 6-foot-10 point guard has struggled in the fourth quarter and seems averse to taking it hard to the rim for fear of getting to the free-throw line after shooting 44 percent in October’s first four games, but he’d made six of seven on the road trip, helping defeat the Blazers before shooting just 2-fo-8 in Monday’s loss in Phoenix.

Joel Embiid returned from his two-game suspension for fighting Karl-Antony Towns and was on the court for only a handful of minutes alongside Simmons before the point guard was injured banging into Royce O’Neale with 5:20 left in the second quarter. The 76ers led by two points at the time and ultimately lost by a bucket after being unable to overcome their 17-point third quarter. Embiid went for 27 points and 16 rebounds, but struggled against Rudy Gobert once again in shooting just 5-for-16 from the field.

The season hasn’t gone as expected for the self-proclaimed game’s top big men, who can indeed become great enough to live up to billing. Embiid sprained an ankle in the opener and missed a game, returned and scored 36 points against an Atlanta before his encounter with Towns, so he’s been on the floor for the equivalent of roughly three normal games. He got to the free-throw line for 18 free-throws against the Jazz, making 16, and is likely to be the focal point once again as he tries to move to a perfect 4-0 in one-on-one matchups with Jokic.

Embiid shot 4-for-17 when these teams got together most recently back in February. The Sixers won at home 117-110, overcoming Jokic’s 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists despite him completely outplaying his counterpart. Not surprisingly, Jimmy Butler closed while Simmons attempted just one shot and was charged with four turnovers. Embiid also took part in wins in his first season in 2016 and in a blowout in ’18 and helped Philly win as a rookie by stripping Jokic, scoring and knocking down key free-throws in the closing stages.

Jokic has more than held his own despite the losses but has slumped of late, shooting 4-for-20 from 3-point range over his last six games and averaging just 12.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists over his last five. That’s usually a productive half for the Joker, who beat out Embiid for First-Team All-NBA honors last season, so we’ll see if this visit serves to energize him. The Nuggets overcame his foul trouble and turnover issues as he played just 23 minutes in a 109-89 blowout of the Heat, Denver’s most impressive effort of the season.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has already called his team out for a lack of effort and intensity, which makes this a great opportunity to show up in a statement game after they were blown out in New Orleans in a nationally-televised contest on Halloween night.

Forward Paul Millsap was limited in practice on Thursday after banging heads with Justise Winslow. The Miami forward missed Thursday’s win at Phoenix and has been placed in concussion protocol, while Millsap is said to be nursing a forehead laceration but isn’t on the injury report. Starting shooting guard Gary Harris sprained an ankle but is also expected to be out there for this matchup with the 76ers.

Josh Richardson will probably see more ball-handling duties with rookie stopper Matisse Thybulle and backup Raul Neto likely to get more minutes as a result of Simmons’ absence.

Guard Shake Milton is still nursing a bone bruise, so wing James Ennis could get more minutes or Trey Burke may find himself included in Brown’s rotation. Simmons has only missed four games since finally getting on the floor after missing the entirety of what would’ve been his rookie season, so this will be new for Philly, which can at least rely on newcomers Richardson an Al Horford to be more aggressive alongside Embiid and Tobias Harris. Furkan Korkmaz, who defeated the Blazers on this trip with a 3-pointer just before the buzzer last Saturday, could also be relied upon to help spread the floor.

The ‘under’ is 5-2 in games involving each of these teams this season. Denver is just 1-2 against the number at home with a one-point win and three-point loss to its credit prior to hammering Miami on Tuesday. Philadelphia is 3-2 ATS on the road so far after covering 2.5 points on a Richardson jumper at the buzzer that provided the final points in a 106-104 loss. The teams have split the eight meetings between head coaches Brown and Malone.

Games to watch

Kings (-1.5/219) at Hawks, 7:35 p.m. ET De'Aaron Fox owns wins in both head-to-head matchups Trae Young and made State Farm Arena his playground in a 146-115 rout on Nov. 1 of last season. Fox was held to 4-for-10 from the field in a 135-113 rout of Atlanta in Sacramento back in Februrary that featured a 20-point breakout game from Harry Giles off the bench on 10-for-12 shooting. Giles is questionable tonight but has yet to debut. Former Hawks' starting center Dewayne Dedmon suffered a knee sprain in Toronto and is questionable. Richaun Holmes would therefore get extended run against a John Collins-less Hawks frontcourt. Sacramento has won four of the last five matchups. Five of the last six meetings between the teams have been decided by double-digits.

Raptors (-2.5/234.5) at Pelicans, 8:05 p.m. ET Toronto is opening a five-game road trip and has won just one of its three games outside Canada, blowing out Chicago while losing to fellow East heavyweights Boston and Milwaukee. The Pels fell 130-122 in the season opener and have only won once all season. All but one of New Orleans' seven games have gone 'over' the posted total. Guard Lonzo Ball is going to play, but J.J. Redick is questionable due to knee trouble.

Bucks (-1.5/218) at Jazz, 9:05 p.m. ET After a dominant performance against the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will see reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, against whom he's got a 3-7 against in head-to-head clashes. The teams split last season's games, but "Greek Freak" finished with 43 points, 14 boards and eight assists in the loss, a 115-111 result in Salt Lake City back in March. Gobert was on the floor less than 20 minutes due to foul trouble but Donovan Mitchell picked up the Jazz with 46 points. Antetokounmpo has averaged 35.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and five assists over his last four contests against Utah. Jazz backups Emmanuel Mudiay and Ed Davis have both been ruled out.

Nets at Blazers (-2.5/233), 10:05 p.m. ET Coming off Thursday's disappointing loss to the Clips, the Blazers return home looking to avoid a fourth straight defeat. Lillard has won the last three head-to-head matchups with Irving and both scored over 30 when they met back in February as the Blazers defeated the Celtics. Irving once hit 11 3-pointers with the Cavs against the Lillard-led Blazers and has seen his counterpart drop a 40-point game, so they'll be looking to cook one another. Hassan Whiteside will look to build on a much stronger second half vs. L.A. after being called out by Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley on TNT's halftime show on Thursday. He may not have to deal with DeAndre Jordan, who is nursing an ankle sprain and considered questionable as Brooklyn opens a five-game road trip.

Heat at Lakers (-8.5/215.5), 10:35 p.m. ET Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade will both be in attendance to see how Miami fares against LeBron James in his new digs, and they obviously won't be the only celebrities in the house. With Heat wing Winslow in concussion protocol, Erik Spoelstra may be down a defender who can help relieve pressure off Jimmy Butler against James, so keep an eye on his availability. Bam Adebayo will try and contain Anthony Davis, while Avery Bradley may return from a lower right leg contusion to help defend impressive rookies Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro in addition to sixth man Goran Dragic. L.A is looking for its seventh straight win and has covered in five of six. Miami is 6-1-1 ATS this season.

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