For all the games that we have been calling the most important of the season, tonight might actually be it (at least until the next one). With five teams clustered around the 4-8 spots in the Western Conference, every game is essential in order to try to rise up through the rankings, as well as to make sure that you do not lag behind to the point where the Clippers or Nuggets can snag the 8th seed.
For the Wolves, there is a lot at stake here after the last matchup in Utah where tempers flared and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague were both ejected and Tom Thibodeau received a technical of his own. There has certainly been some animosity between some Wolves players and former Timberwolves player Ricky Rubio (who is questionable for tonight) and it is fair to bet that will make a reappearance tonight, particularly if Jimmy Butler makes a surprise return.
Injuries will be key for this game. With an already thin line-up, Jeff Teague was hurt in the last game against the Dallas Mavericks and Thibs was purposefully obscure on if Teague was going to miss time or not. If Teague is out and Butler is still unable to go, the Wolves may be down to 7 players that typically get time, assuming that Derrick Rose remains out with a sprained ankle. Both Teague and Rose are game-time decisions.
The Jazz have been the darling of the NBA for a few months now, as they have gone on an absolutely insane tear to come back into the playoff race, going 24-6 in the last 30 games. Their only recent losses have been an inexplicable loss to the Atlanta Hawks, as well as two incredibly close games against the Spurs and Celtics. This is a good team that, since January 24th, has had a defensive rating of 96.6.
The Jazz are one of those teams that is more than the sum of their parts. Rudy Gobert has anchored the defense and, returning from injury, has reminded the NBA of his All-NBA Defense level. The Jazz have a lot of players that play solid defense in Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Favors, and rely on Donavon Mitchell for his scoring capabilities.
Dante Exum has returned as well and has started getting some more minutes, which adds a further long-guard to their rotation.
On the Wolves end, they simply need to be playing better. They have really been playing down to the level of competition, barely beating the Mavericks and the Knicks, losing to the tanking Grizzlies, and getting pummeled by the 76ers. The Wolves were always going to struggle without Jimmy Butler, but at times they look on the precipice of imploding completely.
They have hung onto this playoff race by the skin of their teeth, but if the Wolves drop this game against the Jazz then lose against the Nuggets, things are going to get a little too interesting. However, if the Wolves can pull out a couple of victories, then they essentially guarantee that they will end up better than the 7th seed considering the tiebreakers over the Pelicans, Thunder, and potentially the Jazz.
Projected Starting Lineups
The Rest of the West: Today is huge for the NBA. There is a ton of potential for volatility in the Western Conference as the Wolves, Jazz, Spurs, Pelicans, Nuggets, Trailblazers, Clippers, and the Thunder all play today. The two other most important games are the Thunder vs Pelicans and the Rockets vs Spurs. It’s pretty incredible that the 4-8 seeds are within half a game of each other and all four teams are playing another 4-8 seed tonight.