Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

Thursday's Essentials

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Top Game - Blazers at Nuggets (-6/213), 10:40 p.m.

On Tuesday night, all was right with the Trail Blazers again.

Damian Lillard hit eight 3-pointers, Hassan Whiteside broke off a double-double with five blocks and Portland was so impressive that extended garbage time ensued in a 115-87 rout. Unfortunately, the Knicks can only come through town once and they still woke up this morning as both a last-place team and the NBA’s biggest disappointment.

Portland (10-15 SU, 11-14 ATS) still has time on its side, but must start getting its act together in piling up wins to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013, head coach Terry Stotts’ inaugural season at the helm. The Blazers have incredibly put together winning streaks only twice this season and have dropped eight of their last 10 road games. They’ve only defeated a single team with a winning record outside of Portland and are down three pieces who would ordinarily be in the rotation. Center Jusuf Nurkic is still a few months from returning from compound fractures of both his fibula and tibia in his left leg, forward Zack Collins is out until March after suffering a torn labrum and wing Rodney Hood ruptured his Achilles last Friday, adding to the doomed feeling around the group.

Talk of finding a way to add Portland native Kevin Love has begun making the rounds as a franchise that entered the season with aspirations of taking advantage of Golden State’s demise looks to reverse course from the sea of nowhere if appears headed towards. Carmelo Anthony has already had his contract guaranteed after providing a boost, so the Blazers have already proven willing to do just about anything to get on track.

They don’t play again until visiting Phoenix on Monday and then return home to start a four-game homestand played exclusively against teams with losing records, so this is the beginning of a crucial stretch as they attempt climb back towards .500. As things stand entering Thursday’s action, they’re just one game behind the playoff pace behind a pack featuring the Jazz, Thunder and Kings.

Less than five full games separate the entire Northwest Division, which continues to be led by the Nuggets in spite of their season-worst three-game losing streak. Denver (14-8, 10-11-1) has actually dropped five of six, beating only the Knicks on an East coast trip they returned from following a disappointing 97-92 Tuesday night loss in Philadelphia. Despite a strong start, losing Jamal Murray to a trunk contusion after colliding with fellow point guard Ben Simmons in the opening quarter. X-rays came back as hoped for, but it remains to be seen whether he plays here.

Paul Millsap is also questionable with a foot issue, which could lead to more minutes for rookie forward Michael Porter, Jr., who got early time against the 76ers as Michael Malone seeks to spark a slumping offense. Jokic is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds, numbers more on par with what he did in his second season than what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the previous two as he’s grown into an MVP candidate. Jokic has averaged 15.6 points while shooting 46.6 percent over the last 10 games and is in a 4-for-26 slump from 3-point range (15.3 percent). Getting him going is crucial if the Nuggets are to live up to preseason expectations. They lead the league in fewest points allowed per game this season but have only topped 102 points themselves once in their last six games. Not surprisingly, the ‘under’ is 5-1 over that stretch.

The Nuggets are perfect against Northwest Division opposition, while Portland is 2-2 in such games. Rebounding is likely to play a major role since Denver is 8-2 when winning the glass and the Blazers are 4-13 when outrebounded, so it’s crucial that Whiteside stay out of foul trouble against All-Star Nikola Jokic for the Blazers to hang around and pull off an upset. Skal Labissiere, who has been getting the bulk of the minutes as the primary reserve center, is banged up and would require Stotts to go small with Mario Hezonja and rookie Nassir Little among his limited frontcourt options.

Denver won at Portland 108-100 in the season opener on Oct. 23, capitalizing on knocking down 18 3-pointers, the most in series history. It gave the Nuggets a small measure of revenge after losing last May’s Western Conference semifinal series upon fumbling Games 6 and 7. Jokic scored 16 points in the fourth quarter. He hasn’t scored 16 points in a whole game in seven of the last 11, though he’s starting to show signs of coming out of his slump and did deliver 11 assists against Philly, his second-largest total of the season.

This will be Anthony’s first trip in to Denver with the Blazers and will mark only the third time he faces the team that drafted him while suited up for a conference rival. Anthony was 0-2 at Pepsi Center with OKC in ’17-’18. After a hot start, Anthony is shooting just 33 percent in December, averaging 13.8 points. Including the postseason, the Blazers have won just two of their last nine in Denver, which includes an 0-7 regular-season run. The Blazers' last win in the Mile High city outside of their most recent playoff series came in OT back in the '16-'17 season opener.

Best of the Rest

76ers (-1/210) at Celtics, 8:10 p.m. ET: Boston lost a rollercoaster ride of a game in Indiana on Wednesday, falling victim to the absence of Marcus Smart (eye infection) in addition to Gordon Hayward exiting early after being struck in the face. The Celtics hope both can return and help the team improve to 11-0 at TD Garden, but Hayward reported feeling dizzy after being struck on the nose by Doug McDermott, so he'll have to pass concussion protocol. The 76ers won the season opener 107-93 by holding Kemba Walker to 4-for-18 shooting but he comes off a 44-point outburst in Indy and is looking increasingly comfortable with his role in Boston. Philadelphia is just 5-7 SU on the road and 2-5 ATS in a favorite's role away from home, which is what it would currently close as unless late money comes in on the Celtics, which is possible if the injury situation improves in their favor.

Cavs at Spurs (-11.5/219.5), 8:40 p.m. ET: Cleveland stunningly had the Rockets on the ropes in the fourth quarter of a 116-110 Wednesday night loss and fumbled away the game down the stretch, so an unhappy young team will take the floor at AT&T Center for the second of a back-to-back. The Cavs are 1-2 when playing on the second night in succession, absorbing blowout losses vs. the Knicks (123-105) and 76ers (141-94) on the road while beating the Blazers at home. Cleveland has dropped eight straight and 14 of 15. San Antonio is looking to match its season-long by winning a third straight game and will be playing for just the third time since Dec. 1 allowing them to get healthy and put in some much-needed practice work. The Spurs have won six straight in the series but are just 1-1 SU as a double-digit favorite this season, failing to cover either time.

Mavs (-5.5/220.5) vs. Pistons, 9:10 p.m. ET: This matchup is being played inside Mexico City Arena, which opened in 2012 and has hosted a number of games, most recently last December 13 in a 97-91 Orlando win over the Bulls. Altitude is a variable, but both teams have had a number of days off entering this one. The Mavs come in off their first loss since Nov. 26, falling late against Sacramento in a home upset. Detroit has won four of five and is looking for its first three-game winning streak of the season after Derrick Rose's heroics helped win in New Orleans on Monday night. The Spurs and Suns will come into town and play on Saturday.

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

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