Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

Thursday's Essentials

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Game of the Night – Rockets (-2.5) at Thunder, 9:40 p.m.

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We’re going to get another rare occurrence of fans welcoming back an opposing player with open arms.

While Toronto fans were treated to Kawhi Leonard for just a season and he went 1-for-1 in winning them a championship, Oklahoma City raised Russell Westbrook. They stood by him and his mistakes and he stood by them, emerging as the last man standing after James Harden and Serge Ibaka were traded and Kevin Durant left for Golden State.

Westbrook should get a rousing ovation in his return to Chesapeake Energy Arena. He was the one who stayed and then recruited Paul George to join him and hang around. He wanted to build in a small market and averaged a triple-double there for three consecutive seasons before being dealt over the summer.

GM Sam Presti issued a statement that ended with the line that “it’s going to be a unique moment… a chance for people to recognize someone that will always figure prominently in the history of our city.”

Although Westbrook has had a contentious relationship with fans in opposing arenas, Thursday’s matchup should be all love. Oklahoma City jerseys with the number “0” will be present as far as the eye can see and his imprint on the game should surpass even Harden’s, who had a 41-point triple-double in Wednesday’s 122-115 win in Atlanta.

Westbrook, who has sat on the second-half of every back-to-back this season, opted to sit out the Hawks game instead, leaving him free to play in what will be the Rockets’ lone scheduled stop in OKC this season.

The Thunder, on paper, are also a far tougher opponent than Atlanta, coming in with wins in six of their last seven. Oklahoma City is on a 15-5 run since Nov. 29 and would open as the No. 7 seed if the Western Conference playoffs opened today. Thanks to the Nuggets’ win in Dallas last night, the Rockets enter Thursday in third, but this could certainly be a playoff matchup down the road. While it would be fascinating to see what a drama-filled postseason series would do to the love affair between Westbrook and the Thunder fans, for one evening, we should see fans cheering both.

Harden shot just 9-for-34, slowing down considerably after a 22-point first quarter in which the Rockets scored 45 on the Hawks and kept Atlanta playing from behind. He was the reason the Hawks nearly came back, missing 16 of his 18 second-half shots. Mike D’Antoni said a few guys ran out of gas, which makes sense since Eric Gordon made his largest contributions since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery, scoring 17 points.

P.J. Tucker came up with 17 rebounds and Clint Capela finished with 22 points and 22 rebounds but they joined Harden, Danuel House, Ben McLemore and Gordon in playing 30 or more minutes against the Hawks. The Rockets are 2-2 SU/ATS on the second night of a back-to-back, dropping the last two against Detroit at home on Dec. 14 and most recently at New Orleans on Dec. 29. Harden has only played in three of the games but is averaging 44 points on 41 percent shooting, so he’ll likely rely on the 3-ball more with Steven Adams clogging up the paint.

Westbrook faced his former teammates in the season’s third game and finished with 21 points, 12 boards and nine assists in a 116-112 win, but returning to Chesapeake Energy makes this a completely different game for him. He’s shot poorly in Houston, connecting on 21 percent from 3-point range in November, 22.8 percent in December and entering this game on a 1-for-14 run from beyond the arc.

There’s no way Westbrook won’t be more aggressive here and Harden is likely to defer more, so a lower-scoring game may be in the cards. Harden scored 40 points and dished out seven assists in the first meeting with the Thunder and has averaged 40 points per game on the road.

Houston has won eight of its last 10 games but only covered in six of them after falling just short against the Hawks on Wednesday. Most of their totals have covered in the 225-235 range, but last night’s game closed at 237 and ended up pushing. Oklahoma City’s largest total of the season closed 229 against the Pelicans on Nov. 29 and went ‘under.’ The low side has prevailed in six of eight involving the Thunder.

Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and sixth man Dennis Schröder are averaging nearly combined 60 points over the Thunder’s last 18 games. They combined for 59 in the first meeting with the Rockets, shooting a combined 22-for-48.

OKC small forward Danilo Gallinari is dealing with a calf contusion and backup center Nerlens Noel is bothered by a nasty ankle sprain. Both are listed as questionable.

Best of the Rest

Celtics at 76ers (-2.5/216.5), 7:10 p.m. ET: Only one of the top two teams in the Atlantic Division will be at full strength for this game.Joel Embiid's gruiesome finger injury suffered the other night will keep him out, thrusting Al Horford into a larger role against his former team. For Boston, Kemba Walker is over his illness, Marcus Smart has returned from his eye infection and Jaylen Brown is playing through a shoulder issue, so the Celtics have everyone on board, a rarity they've only been able to enjoy barely a quarter of the season. Gordon Hayward has even looked more like his usual self since coming back. Sixers rookie elite wing defender Matisse Thybulle (knee) is hoping to be back after missing multiple games. Smart and Horford were missing for Philadelphia’s 115-109 win on Dec. 12 that ended Boston’s unbeaten run at TD Garden this season. The 76ers blew out the Celtics 107-93 on Oct. 23 and have no won three straight against a team it had lost 21 of 24 against since the beginning of the ’14-’15 season. Boston hasn’t lost four straight in this series vs. Philly since ’01-’02

Cavaliers at Pistons (-7/220), 7:10 p.m. ET: Detroit will look for another win over the Cavs after posting a 115-113 comeback win on Tuesday. Derrick Rose scored the winning basket and finished with 24 points and seven assists. Andre Drummond finished with 23 points and 20 rebounds as Detroit closed out a six-game road trip. The Pistons are home for the first time since Dec. 26. The Cavs are opening a six-game road trip and won't have rookie guard Kevin Porter, Jr. available.

Blazers (-3) at Timberwolves, 8:10 p.m. ET: Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to miss his 12th straight contest, but the Wolves have been better at navigating his absence of late, winning four of seven since Dec. 26. Portland comes off an upset in Toronto, getting a season-high 28 points from Carmelo Anthony. The Blazers are hoping to finish up a road trip by at 3-2 with a victory here, which would be their seventh in eight tries over the Wolves. Andrew Wiggins scored 15 points in Minnesota's 119-112 loss to the Grizzlies on Tuesday. C.J. McCollum has been dealing with an upper respiratory infection but is expected to play.

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

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