The race for the top seed in the Western Conference is coming down to the wire.
The Utah Jazz enter Friday’s penultimate game of their regular season against the host Oklahoma City Thunder in the top spot, but Phoenix — with the tiebreaker in hand — remains within striking distance.
But the bigger concern for Utah in this closing stretch is getting healthy heading into the playoffs, whether the Jazz finish as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Playing without leading scorer Donovan Mitchell since April 16 and fellow All-Star guard Mike Conley since April 26, the Jazz have been able to do more than stay afloat, going 6-3 since Conley’s injury.
But Utah has dropped two consecutive games entering Friday’s contest.
Center Rudy Gobert said being without Mitchell and Conley has been difficult but will help in the long run.
“When you miss your two leading scorers, it makes it easier on teams to prepare for us. That’s why we’re so hard to guard with everybody — because we’ve got so many weapons,” Gobert said. “And when those guys are not here, the defense can really focus on Joe (Ingles), Bojan (Bogdanovic), Jordan (Clarkson) and make their life tougher. It’s great for us to go through that phase right now. It just makes us better.”
Mitchell has been ruled out through the rest of the regular season but is closing in on a return from a sprained right ankle. He’ll be helped by at least a six-day break between the end of the regular season and the Jazz’s playoff opener.
Conley could still return from his hamstring injury before the end of the regular season.
The Jazz (50-20) have won both meetings this season with the Thunder, including a 110-109 win in Oklahoma City in December.
The Thunder have changed dramatically since then, with a series of injuries and roster moves that have made an already rebuilding team even younger and more inexperienced.
Oklahoma City (21-49) comes into Thursday’s game having dropped eight consecutive games and 25 of its last 27 to fall into the next-to-last spot in the Western Conference.
The Thunder’s rotation has been constantly evolving recently, with the addition of Gabriel Deck as well as players shuffling in and out of the rotation due to injuries.
Deck, who has played just eight NBA games after coming over from Spain, figures to be one of the Oklahoma City players who could most benefit from a meeting with one of the league’s best teams.
Deck has made a strong impression so far, averaging 7.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists with just three turnovers. Deck has turned the ball over just once in the last six games.
While the Thunder are playing primarily for lottery position, Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said there was plenty of development to be had as they finish up the regular season outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2014-15.
“You want to play against the best teams and the best players because it gives you a more accurate assessment of what to work on,” Daigneault said.
–Field Level Media