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Nets arrive in Utah with sixth seed in jeopardy

Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Brooklyn took a loss to OKC to kick off the road trip, but managed to hold onto the six seed. Then, on Friday night, the Pistons beat the LeBron-less Lakers and pushed Brooklyn out of six and into seven by one one-thousandths of a point.

Hanging on to six is going to take some doing. The Nets’ next few games are against the Jazz, Clippers, Kings, Lakers, and Trailblazers before they head back to the East Coast. So winning even just two of those games could be huge. If I had to circle two that seemed easier than the rest, the Kings and Lakers are obvious candidates, but we’ve seen these Nets surprise just about everyone this season. You never know which opposing fans they might upset.

The Jazz are up first, making this a battle of the six seeds. Utah is 39-29 compared to the Nets 36-34, but the two occupy the same spaces in their respective Conference standings. Utah is an interesting mix of veteran players and young stars and they’ve proven over the last couple of years to be dangerous both in the regular and postseason. They won’t be a pushover whatsoever, let’s get into it.

Where to Follow the Game

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DeMarre Carroll (knee), Treveon Graham (back) and Shabazz Napier (hamstring) are probable. Allen Crabbe (knee) is out both Saturday and Sunday vs. the Clippers.

Dante Exum (knee) is out. Tony Bradley (knee), and Thabo Sefolosha (hamstring) are all day to day

The Game

The Jazz beat the Timberwolves 120-100 on Thursday night and that is significant only because the Nets will have had one more day of rest than the Jazz by the time the game starts on Saturday night. They’ll play the Clippers on a travel-day back-to-back on Sunday night which we all know is almost certainly a schedule loss, So this one might be important.

Utah runs out a starting five of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. Not bad! There are no obvious weak spots, and it’s kind of hilarious that Favors is still there after all those years. He was a New Jersey Net, that’s how long ago that trade went down. He isn’t the most obvious fit next to Gobert, but Quin Snyder makes it work. Snyder is one of the better coaches in the league. His trajectory for this Jazz teams kind of mimics Kenny Atkinson’s, with the first few years being mostly building towards something and then reaching a level of (hopefully, in the Nets case) sustainable success. Snyder was given more to work with than Atkinson, but he’s done a good job and Utah has been in the playoffs in the West the last three seasons. Impressive.

The Nets feasted on the Thunder in the first half of their most recent match up largely due to their strong defensive effort. The Thunder turned it up to the next level in the second half and ran away with it, but that’s what teams who have two All Stars who both know exactly how to take over a game can do. The Nets are going to have to bring it again on defense in order to get some easy buckets against the Jazz, and over their last five games, the Nets have a 95.5 (!!) defensive rating, easily the best in the league. Over that same span, they unsurprisingly lead the league in net rating as well with an 11.9 mark. Since the All Star Break, the Jazz’ 5.9 net rating ran 5th in the league.

D’Angelo Russell looked a little frustrated by the Thunder defense on Wednesday, and he won’t have a much easier matchup against Utah. Across the board they’re filled with really solid individual defenders whether it’s Ricky Rubio or Donovan Mitchell taking him on in the half court or Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert being switched on him in a P&R defense. D’Angelo is going to have to look for the creases and cracks in the defense, and this could be a game where if he can’t get his shot going early he might have to focus on distributing for his teammates.

The Jazz also have some solid role players, running out Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder, Royce O’Neal as their bench unit. It isn’t one of the most intimidating second units in the league, but they have guys who can slot in at different times and do things they excel at. With the injuries to DeMarre Carroll and even Shabazz Napier, the Nets bench is going to need guys to step up and produce more than they might be expected to. Carroll is and was so important to this teams success, it’ll be tough to replace his production.

Player to Watch

Donovan Mitchell is one of the most fun young guards in the league to watch, and after a bit of a slow start to the season he’s really proved himself to be a legitimate franchise cornerstone. Since December 9th, he’s averaging 25.1 points per game and if we cut that down to just his last 11 games, he’s up to 29 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 45/41/80 shooting splits. He’s playing like a superstar. He can also close games, and is no stranger to big shots and big moments. This might be a lofty comparison, but with Dwyane Wade retiring there’s a vacuum for a young, headstrong, downhill athletic freak who carries his team as one of the best shooting guards in the league. Mitchell is already a better shooter than Wade ever was, but he’ll have to win a couple more playoff series and play for about a decade longer before we really start to have that discussion. For now, he’ll continue to lead this Jazz team to the postseason in a loaded Western Conference.

Playoff Picture

Other than the Nets, none of the other team in the race for the last three spots in the East are in action. The Heat, after losing to the Bucks, are now three games behind the Nets in eighth and the Magic are in ninth, four games behind.

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