Monday’s Essentials

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Top Game – Bucks (-7/229.5) at Spurs, 8:40 p.m.

Milwaukee is on pace for a 70-win season and again owns the Eastern Conference’s longest winning streak entering a week, taking a five-game surge that is matched by the Lakers, Jazz and Thunder.

Despite embarking on a four-game road trip that begins in San Antonio, the Bucks have a great chance to get to double-digits since there’s only one back-to-back ahead and they’ll be favored each time out. Milwaukee has won an NBA-best 18 games in succession already this season and survived injuries that has led to absences of their top three players, including MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks lead the NBA in margin of victory and now have a clean injury report to work with as they hit the road for games in San Antonio, Golden State, Sacramento and Portland. Milwaukee was 27-10 at this stage of the season last year and ultimately won 60 games, but it has definitely taken a step forward this season in becoming the overwhelming Eastern Conference favorite over the past few weeks.

Milwaukee was a 5-to-6 (-120) choice after opening the season at 5-to-4 (+125) at the Westgate Superbook and deserves that designation. The Bucks championship odds have been trimmed from +600 to +350 and they should be lumped in with the co-favorites, L.A.’s Clippers and Lakers, (+250), due to their easier road. I’ve been writing this for weeks and the gap has been closing, so the time to act on any championship features appears to be now. Barring an injury to Antetokounmpo, the odds won’t be getting any better.

Antetokounmpo was dealing with back trouble in Milwaukee’s last loss, that Christmas 121-109 setback in Philadelphia where he shot poorly and couldn’t get loose. He took a few games off and participated last week in wins over the Bulls, Wolves and Spurs, averaging 29 points and 11.7 rebounds, so he’s looking healthy again.

The “Greek Freak” scored 19 of his 32 points in the third quarter of Saturday night’s 127-118 home win over the same Spurs team they’ll see tonight. Although Milwaukee failed to cover a 12-point spread in garbage time after letting San Antonio close on an 11-2 run, it has still covered in six of nine. Antetokounmpo made a season-high 15 free throws in 18 tries against the Spurs while Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez continued to a tremendous job protecting the paint and held LaMarcus Aldridge to 0-for-7 shooting in pulling away in the second half before the Spurs’ game-closing run.

With Eric Bledsoe back to run the show and dominate game at the point of attack defensively, the Bucks are more formidable than ever. Backup George Hill continues to lead the NBA in 3-point percentage and has been one of the most improved players on the offensive end in the entire league. Khris Milddleton should be an All-Star again, while Donte DiVincenzo, who you probably remember from his run winning a national championship with Villanova, has bounced back from an injury-plagued rookie season and is a blossoming into a terrific glue guy. Shooting specialist Kyle Korver is on board as another weapon the Bucks can plug in alongside a stretch-four like Ersan Ilyasova, surrounding Antetokounmpo with shooters at every turn.

Although Milwaukee squandered a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals last May in being eliminated by Leonard and eventual champion Toronto, it did win a pair of playoff series for the first time since 2001. That experience, combined with the awful taste that the Bucks were ultimately left with, has been a driving force in them hitting the ground running in posting the league’s top record entering the first full week of January.

Antetokounmpo’s back problems are a concern, but the fact that they’re taking a cautious approach with him is a fantastic sign, especially since they’ve continued to win games without him. Although the 76ers are formidable and teams like the Celtics and Heat have taken dramatic steps forward, the Bucks look like a great bet to come out of the East.

San Antonio remains eighth in the Western Conference ahead of the Blazers, Suns and Grizzlies but continues to struggle to meet expectations. Gregg Popovich just gave Lonnie Walker IV his first NBA start against the Bucks on Saturday night, taking Bryn Forbes spot. We’ll see whether that tweak continues with Dejounte Murray likely to return after missing the last game due to personal reasons. The Spurs ae 0-2 in 2020 and hoping to avoid a three-game losing streak for the first time since November. Milwaukee is 23-0 against teams that are under .500.

The Bucks will set an NBA record with their 62nd consecutive game scoring at least 100 points when they surpass the century mark in San Antonio against the Spurs’ porous defense, taking sole possession of a mark they now share with the ’16-’17 Houston Rockets.

Best of the Rest

Thunder at 76ers (-7/213), 7:10 p.m. ET: Oklahoma City puts its five-game winning streak on the line against a Philadelphia team that’s back home after suffering through an 0-4 road trip that shed light on some of the dysfunction facing the Sixers. Ben Simmons has called this a must-win and the team looks to mesh better back home, where they come in 16-2 and last embarrassed the Bucks on Dec. 25. The availability of Nerlens Noel to return from an ankle injury suffered last week will play a big role in picking a winner here since his defense on Joel Embiid would be essential. James Ennis (ill) will look to return for Philly.

Jazz (-3/222) at Pelicans, 8:10 p.m. ET: J.J. Redick and other New Orleans players were openly talking playoffs last week and have been rejuvenated by their recent run of success that featured a season-best four-game win streak and sees them enter this game winner in five of six after Saturday’s upset in Sacramento. Guard Lonzo Ball has been at his best of late and scored 15 fourth-quarter points to help fuel the win over the Kings, while Derrick Favors’ return to form has made a huge difference inside. This will be his first matchup with former running mate Rudy Gobert, who has done an excellent job protecting the paint as he bids for another Defensive Player of the Year award. Utah’s Mike Conley remains out with a hamstring injury while New Orleans’ top pick, Zion Williamson, has begun practicing but is still likely weeks away from his debut.

Bulls at Mavericks (-9.5/216), 8:40 p.m. ET: Chicago was actually favored against Boston over the weekend, so oddsmakers have noticed its improved play of late. The Celtics managed to win on the second night of a back-to-back and the Bulls still don’t look like a playoff team, losing four of five and struggling in the third quarter again. They have seen Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen improve upon their consistency, but they’ll be playing on the road for the first time since Dec. 23. Dallas comes off a home loss to Charlotte in OT after squandering a double-digit lead. Kristaps Porzingis remains out with an injured knee, but Tim Hardaway, Jr. may return from a hamstring issue.

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