Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:05 AM
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Game of the Night - Minnesota at Utah, ESPN, 10:35 ET
Only the Rockets had a better February than Utah, which matched Toronto at 9-2 and fared better than even Golden State (8-2). Despite their success, that run was only good enough to get the Jazz to the brink of playoff contention since the absence of Rudy Gobert proved to be so detrimental.
In the month he missed between mid-December and Jan. 18, they went 4-11. His return helped right the ship, which coupled with rookie Donovan Mitchell’s emergence, has Utah back over .500, currently two games behind the Nuggets, who hold the No. 8 seed.
The Timberwolves are hoping to fare better than Utah did after losing its most important player, Jimmy Butler, to a small tear in his meniscus that required surgery. His expected recovery time will likely keep him out until the final week of the regular season, so it’s on the players left to try and protect the Northwest Division lead he left them with. After winning their first two games without him, the Wolves looked like they badly missed Butler on Thursday night.
The Trail Blazers pulled to within one-half game of the Wolves after last night’s 108-99 win, taking advantage of a big fourth quarter to rally. Karl-Anthony Towns came through with 34 points and 17 rebounds, but the rest of his teammates barely shot 40 percent from the field and were a combined 3-for-17 from 3-point range. Butler allowed Towns to be one of the best No. 2 options in the game.
Now that the pecking order has been altered, it’s on Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Crawford to pick up the slack. They combined to shoot 12-for-33 in Portland, missing nine of 11 3-pointers. A Minnesota loss in Utah would drop them into a first-place tie with the Blazers, who they finished off a split of a season series against last night.
Nemanja Bjelica has taken Butler’s spot in the lineup and performed well rebounding and spacing the floor as a 3-point threat, averaging 9.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. This will be their second back-to-back since the All-Star break, splitting at Houston and home against Chicago last week. They’re 5-6 on the second night when playing consecutive games.
The Jazz were crushed by the Blazers last Friday night and will be wrapping up a six-game homestand here, looking to finish 4-2. Utah’s 11-game winning streak ended in that loss to Portland, while Houston came through earlier in the week and utilized a small-ball approach to win by 11 points. A win over the Mavs in between those games on Saturday night was rather sloppy, so the Jazz haven’t exactly lit it up coming out of the All-Star break.
Donovan Mitchell scored 40 points to open February and won a slam dunk contest along the way, but he’s shot 39 percent over his last 10 games shot 1-for-9 from 3-point range against the Rockets. Mitchell is indefensible if he’s got his jump shot working, and has Ricky Rubio back in the fold to play table-setter, so we’ll see if he can snap out of his slump against a Timberwolves defense that has held him to just 13 points per game and 42 percent shooting.
Rubio is still working his way back from a hip injury with just three games under his belt, but had averaged 27.7 points over the three games prior to getting hurt. If Rubio can get back to that level, Utah has plenty of ammunition to chase down Butler-less Minnesota in the Northwest Division.
Although the Jazz are currently bringing up the rear, they’re only five games back of first place entering Friday night. They could make a statement by taking care of business at home as a 6.5-point favorite.
These teams will play again on April 1 and haven’t faced off since Nov. 13, so it’s not worth putting much stock into the Timberwolves winning the first two games since Mitchell was nowhere near as polished as he is now. Minnesota won the first meeting way back on Oct. 20, in the second game of the season, 100-97.
The Jazz have failed to cover in any of their last five outings. The Wolves have seen the ‘over’ prevail in eight of their last nine contests. Taj Gibson, who left Thursday's loss with a hip issue, is listed as questionable.
There aren't a lot of great matchups on Friday's 10-game NBA card. You just read about the top Western Conference matchup. The East has the night's three best alternatives. Toronto visiting Washington and Milwaukee hosting Indiana look interesting, while Charlotte is hoping to continue its playoff push in Philadelphia against a team in a letdown spot coming off last night's win in Cleveland.
Joel Embiid is likely to play in his fourth back-to-back in a 30-dayspan against the Hornets but has shown no signs of wearing down. Charlotte may not have Cody Zeller due to a knee injury that sidelined him last time out. Michaek Kidd-Gilchrist also missed Wednesday's 134-106 loss to Boston and is listed as questionable due to a hamstring issue.
The Raptors lost wing OG Anunoby to a significant ankle sprain in a mid-week win in Orlando, so don't expect the rookie to play in D.C. against the Wizards. Pascal Siakam will likely see increased minutes as a result. Washington is likely to have Otto Porter available despite elbow discomfort.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably the biggest name whose availability for tonight's action needs to be tracked. He left Wednesday's 23-point loss to the Pistons with an eye injury that left him with blurry vision post-game. The expectation is that he'll be out there, but make sure before coming in on Bucks/Pacers. Milwaukee wing Tony Snell is also dealing with a thigh injury.
OKC has seen Russell Westbrook toil through a 2-for-24 shooting slump from beyond the arc, but have remained healthy and may have the newly-signed Corey Brewer available to debut after being signed following his buyout with the Lakers. Phoenix forward T.J. Warren (tailbone) and center Tyson Chandler (neck) missed Wednesday's win in Memphis and are questionable here.
The Clippers host the Knicks and aren't likely to get Danilo Gallinari back in the mix due to his hand injury. Guard Avery Bradley remains sidelined, which means the L.A. defense could again struggle.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA