Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

Monday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Thunder at Jazz (-8/210.5), 9 p.m. ET

The Jazz dusted themselves off after absorbing a vicious 121-96 home rout last Wednesday by hammering the depleted Grizzlies on Saturday night, improving to 9-2 in Salt Lake City. Only the Clippers have worse disparity between home and away, so it’s important that a team still figuring one another out due to offseason turmoil handles business this week.

Utah visits Minnesota on Wednesday and will host Golden State and Orlando between now and Tuesday, so this is a manageable point in its schedule before the grind sets in since it will find itself on the road for seven of nine between Dec. 19-Jan. 6. The holidays are hard enough on teams, but spending the bulk of that time in hotels and different cities adds to the burden.

Despite a shaky start from point guard Mike Conley and struggles from a bench that has dealt with injuries and guys struggling to find their place, the Jazz opened Monday just two games behind the Nuggets after Denver’s upset loss in Brooklyn on Sunday. They’re one of only two teams in the division sporting a winning record and are part of a Western Conference top-six that unexpectedly includes the Mavericks but looks sturdy enough to hold serve as the main group that will compete for a Finals appearance.

To that end, visiting Oklahoma City is in that “other” group, but unlike say San Antonio, Portland or Minnesota, has actually performed better than expected. Following a 108-96 rout in Portland on Sunday night to open a four-game trip that culminates with games in Sacramento and Denver later this week, the Thunder are closing in on a .500 record when many expected that they would be bringing up the rear in the West.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot a combined 4-for-18 from 3-point range against the OKC perimeter defense while Carmelo Anthony made just one of his five looks from beyond the arc, finishing up 4-for-18. Guards Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and sixth man Dennis Schroder combined for 62 points, all getting at least 20, helping build a lead that ultimately reached 18 points.

Oklahoma City has now won four of its last five and is also on a 4-1 ‘under’ run, controlling games by slowing the pace and defending while leaning on savvy guard play and big men Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel to protect the paint. The Thunder have the highest-scoring effort against the mighty Lakers (in a 130-127 loss on Nov. 22) and have been tremendous against the spread since a Nov. 15 upset of the 76ers, coming in on an 8-3 covering the number.

The Thunder have cashed in five of seven as an outright underdog, the role they find themselves in tonight.

Meanwhile, the Jazz have failed to cover as a favorite in nine of 16 contests this season, including its season-opening 100-95 win against OKC. Unless you’re scared off by the Thunder being stuck in a back-to-back situation, this would seem like the ideal spot to clench your fist and take the points, especially with Conley still limited by a hamstring issue that kept him out the past few games and may linger into this week.

The typical starting five of Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Conley has a terrific plus-minus, so monitor Conley’s availability before pulling the trigger here.

Conley shot 1-for-16 in that Oct. 23 season-opening Jazz win, which came on the strength of Mitchell shooting 14-for-22 and finishing with 32 points and 12 boards to fuel a fourth-quarter comeback. Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander combined for 48 points but neither Adams nor Noel played well, contributing to the Jazz being outscored 58-34 in the paint. How that duo deals with Gobert’s length will be telling here.

Oklahoma City swept all four of last season’s meetings with the Jazz, but that was obviously with Russell Westbrook leading the charge. The Thunder are 0-2 on the second night of back-to-backs but covered in a 116-112 loss at Houston and a 112-107 loss at the Lakers as double-digit ‘dogs.

Best of the Rest

L.A. Clippers (-1/217) at Indiana, 7:05 p.m. ET: You have a better chance of suiting up for L.A. then Kawhi Leonard on the second night of a back-to-back after L.A. rebounded from its worst loss of the season by pulling away from the Wizards in D.C. Paul George has suited up on consecutive nights, doing so the last time the Clips were in this situation in blowout wins at Dallas and Memphis, so the expectation is that he’ll be out there in his old stomping grounds.

L.A.’s win over Washington was just its fourth in 10 road games and snapped a two-game skid outside Staples Center, but Doc Rivers has to be a little concerned that his team has surrendered 119 or more points in four of their last six outings. The ‘under’ has connected in three straight Pacers games, but they’re coming back after finishing a five-game road trip and will be playing at home for the first time all month. Indiana has won four consecutive home games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and hope to get back point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who is dealing with a hand injury and warmed up this weekend in New York before deciding he couldn’t go. Center Myles Turner helped swing the 104-103 win with his shot-blocking but Indy is still having issues on the boards that would really hurt them here. Look for L.A. to prioritize getting physical with he and Domantas Sabonis early, which creates an opportunity for Ivica Zubac to play a large role.

Sacramento at Houston (-12.5/227), 8:05 p.m. ET: The Kings improved to 4-9 on the road in winning in Dallas on Sunday but may find the goings much tougher here since the Rockets are 9-2 at the Toyota Center and have averaged 129 points there over their last five games. Russell Westbrook has looked increasingly comfortable of late and James Harden is rolling, so the Kings may have to fill it up offensively to hang around here. Sacramento got a career game from forward Nemanja Bjelica in Dallas and could get a huge boost with second-year forward Marvin Bagley potentially making his return from a broken thumb.

The Rockets won all four meetings last season, averaging 127 points per game in doing so. They won’t have to deal with pesky point guard De’Aaron Fox, who remains out a few weeks with an ankle injury. Sacramento is 0-2 on the second night of back-to-backs, suffering a 113-81 loss in Utah and nearly winning outright in Boston on Nov. 25.

Orlando at Milwaukee (-12.5/218), 8:05 p.m. ET: The Magic dominated the Bucks at Fiserv Forum 103-83 in their last visit to downtown Milwaukee, but Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t suit up in that game. The Bucks have otherwise won six of seven since the start of 2018 against Orlando with its star in the lineup, losing a shootout the only time they fell. This matchup is always an interesting one since the brain trust that drafted the Greek Freak and put the bulk of Milwaukee’s team together has spent the last few seasons building up the Magic with some success.

Milwaukee has won and NBA-best 14 straight games and has covered in four straight, posting a ridiculous margin of victory of over 37 points. Although the Hornets, Knicks and Pistons were the first three victims, the Clippers are the fourth team that got destroyed and both Leonard and George were in the lineup. Milwaukee wn’t face a team with a winning record until next Monday when they host the Mavs to open a week in which they’ll host the Lakers in a nationally televised affair on Thursday night. Getting back All-Star guard Khris Middleton has made the team all the more imposing, so we’ll see if they can cover this number against a Magic team that prides itself on defense and owns a four-game win streak that has allowed them to climb back to .500.

Center Nikola Vucevic has missed the past few weeks with an ankle injury and won’t be back for this one, putting extra pressure on Khem Birch and Mo Bamba to continue protecting the paint. Head coach Steve Clifford has a number of strong athletes he can try throwing at Antetokounmpo, but both Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon are smaller and must avoid foul trouble to give the visitors a chance. Orlando’s opponents during its current run have been the Warrior, Wizards, Suns and Cavs, so take its perfect December with a grain of salt. It will be interesting to see whether Markelle Fultz can continue progressing as the schedule intensifies since he’ll be playing the Lakers and Rockets at home later this week after dealing with Eric Bledsoe and the Bucks in this one.

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

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