Preview: Wolves vs. Jazz

MINNEAPOLIS — A week ago, the Utah Jazz were on the rise as the Minnesota Timberwolves slipped down the standings in the Western Conference.

Two wins by the Timberwolves coupled with other losses around the conference now have them tied for fifth place.

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That’s how close the competition is for playoff spots in the West, leaving Sunday’s game between Utah and Minnesota crucial for positioning.

“Scratching out wins, it’s critical,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after a 93-92 win on Friday night in Dallas. “Everyone is tough in the West. Sometimes it’s going to be like tonight.”

The Timberwolves (44-33) survived against the lottery-bound Mavericks. Minnesota climbed into a tie with Oklahoma City, which lost to Denver in overtime.

Meanwhile, New Orleans lost to Cleveland and dropped into a tie for seventh with Utah (43-33), which beat Memphis 107-97. The Jazz and Pelicans are a half-game between the Timberwolves and Thunder.

It was all part of another wild night in the West.

Minnesota won the first two games against Utah this season, both in the first month of the season. The Jazz came back to beat the Timberwolves 116-108 on March 2 in Salt Lake City. The victory started a nine-game winning streak for Utah, which has now won 12 of 15.

A settled rotation and midseason trade helped the Jazz.

Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert have been an effective unit, and new pickup Jae Crowder has meshed with the four when replacing Favors.

“Our lineup with Rudy and Jae and those guys has been astronomically good, but it’s also been very good with Fav and the way he’s played,” Utah coach Quin Snyder told the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Collectively, it’s hard. At the end of the game, when teams are small — and those things usually dictate different lineups, different situations. Fav understands that. I wouldn’t expect him to be OK with that because he’s a competitor, but it doesn’t prevent him from being unbelievably supportive of his teammates.”

Rubio, a former Timberwolves player, is questionable with left hamstring soreness. He was held out of Friday’s win over the Grizzlies.

Royce O’Neale started in place of Rubio, but Dante Exum filled the point guard role in a season-high 27:02 and had 21 points and three assists.

Exum has played eight games since returning from a shoulder injury.

“It’s good to have a game like that, especially after all I’ve been through this season,” Exum told the Tribune. “It’s a good boost to my confidence. I know what I can do, and I know what I can bring to this team.”

The Timberwolves could be close to getting a key piece back. Jimmy Butler has been cleared for contact in practice after recovering from knee surgery. Minnesota is being cautious with its All-Star and knows he still has hurdles to overcome.

“It’s him being ready to go,” Thibodeau told the Star Tribune. “I want him to have confidence in his body that he can go again.

“So, usually what happens is, you’re doing the on-court stuff. You start with non-contact. Then you phase in the contact and you build up. You start with one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three and then the five-on-five. And, after each step, you have to see how it responds the next day. So far, it’s been pretty good.”

Guard Derrick Rose has missed five games for the Timberwolves with a sprained ankle and he’s doubtful for Sunday.

A tiebreaker in the playoff race is on the line Sunday if Minnesota can pull off the victory without Butler. The Timberwolves are 8-7 since Butler was injured. He was missing when Utah pulled out the home win on March 2, with Gobert scoring 26 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking four shots.

The last game also saw Timberwolves starters Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague ejected along with Crowder. Teague fouled Rubio hard at one point and Crowder was involved by sticking up for his point guard.

“That wasn’t contentious,” Thibodeau told the Star Tribune after the game.