Game 34: Utah Jazz vs Minnesota Timberwolves

Utah Jazz (15-16) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (16-17)

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Derrick Williams! Jeremy Evans! Its your 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest!

Derrick Williams! Jeremy Evans! It's your 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest!

Last game: Minnesota: L, 103-101 vs Denver in OT, Utah: L, 106-102 vs San Antonio

Minnesota lost a heartbreaker to the Nuggets in Denver on Monday to fall back under .500 again. The Wolves had a chance to tie in overtime after a key steal by Martell Webster. But with Minnesota trailing by three, Webster flew all the way to the basket for the dunk with less than a second on the clock. I just…I don’t…ugh.

Utah dropped a close game to a banged up Spurs team on Monday. Despite missing Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs were able to beat the Jazz in Utah thanks in part to Matt Bonner’s hot three point shooting (5 3-pt field goals). Al Jefferson had 20 points in the loss, and Utah has dropped seven of their last nine.

The Key Questions

#1. Why have the Jazz been struggling so much recently?

Utah’s recent struggles can be partially attributed to the quality of competition. Over the past 12 games (of which Utah has won three), the Jazz have faced Oklahoma City twice, San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, Indiana, New York, and both Los Angeles teams. Just a brutal stretch.

That being said, a true playoff team would hope to win more than three of those games. Utah posted quality wins over Memphis and the Lakers, but their other win during that stretch was against Washington, and they dropped games to the Warriors (ouch) and the Hornets (really really ouch). Not fun times in Salt Lake City.

#2. Record-wise, how significant is this game?

Surprisingly significant. The winner of this game goes into the All-Star break with a .500 record, and the loser hits the bottom of the division. Admittedly, in a tightly packed Western Conference race, divisional standings mean next to nothing, but for a perennial bottom feeder like Minnesota, it would be a big psychological boost to move out of the cellar halfway through the season.

In a totally meaningless bit of interesting information, tonight is a matchup of Dunk Contest rivals in Jeremy Evans and Derrick Williams. Evans absolutely deserved to be in the contest ahead of New York’s Iman Shumpert (if you don’t believe me, search YouTube for some of Evans’ best work), so his addition is a welcome change. Also: someone please agree with me that the NBA making the Dunk Contest completely in the hands of the fans is an utter travesty?

#3. Will Pekovic be available to play?

Pek is questionable tonight after spraining his ankle against the Nuggets on Monday. According to the Pioneer Press:

Pekovic, injured in the second quarter of Monday’s 103-101 overtime loss at Denver Monday night, will go through a treatment session first with team trainer Gregg Farnam.

“Gregg told me he wants to see how I’m feeling this afternoon,” Pekovic said after today’s shootaround practice. “I feel OK. I just have a little pain. I should be fine. If I play, I should be close to 100 percent.”

His presence will be an important factor tonight. The Timberwolves, lacking talent so severely at the wing positions, will need to out-do Utah’s post production. The last time these two teams met, Paul Millsap beat Kevin Love handily. It would be nice to see that change tonight.

The Key Matchups

The center position will be one of the more interesting chess matches of the game. Al Jefferson struggled against Darko’s length in January (6-14 from the field), but Pekovic is considerably more productive, and strong enough to keep Jefferson out of his comfort zone. Pek, however, won’t be able to bother Jefferson with length. The plot thickens.

Despite Minnesota’s lack of talent at the wing, I refuse to be concerned by Gordon Hayward and Josh Howard. I just…I’m sorry. I can’t do it.

Utah’s bench, however, concerns me some. There are some talented players coming in with the second unit, including promising rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, as well as Derrick Favors backing up Paul Millsap. That’s a decent amount of good young players.

The Outlook

Last time these two teams met, Utah was a playoff team, 10-5, and playing confident basketball, especially at home. Tonight, the Timberwolves have developed their own chemistry, they have won three of their last four, and they will be playing at the Target Center. By no means is a victory certain, but the Wolves have to be feeling good about their chances.

Game starts at 7 pm on Fox Sports North

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