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Warriors vs. Jazz preview: Utah looks to finish an incredible season strong

The Jazz are nearing the end of an incredible regular season with work still to be done. The Warriors still don’t have much to play for.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Since this is a Golden State Warriors blog, let’s just get this out of the way: the Warriors will have nothing to play for when they play the Utah Jazz tonight at 6 p.m. PST in Salt Lake City.

They’ve been playing like they have nothing to play for ...for a while.

There’s not much reason to expect them to play differently tonight.

They’ve shown no interest in building momentum for the playoffs to this point and one good game against the Utah Jazz would hardly even count as momentum (no, the “glorified scrimmage” against the Phoenix Suns does not factor into this equation for me).

The injury report is still the usual subjects — there’s no Stephen Curry, which still sucks.

So even as Warriors fans, it’s sort of more fun to look at this game from Utah’s perspective.

The Jazz can still earn the three seed

The Jazz really are an incredible story this season that probably hasn’t really gotten its due because expectations were low to start with and were confirmed by their performance through January.

Until they blew the Warriors out...but we’ll come back to that shortly.

When Gordon Hayward elected to sign with the Boston Celtics, the general feeling among NBA fans and media was that he left the Jazz crippled and heading toward a rebuild. Not that this poll is definitive data to support that, but it’s certainly representative of what I remember.

David Locke wrote optimistically about their “slow and space” approach to the game — as a direct contrast to “pace and space” — but early on in the season, it just didn’t seem to be working out not only due to Hayward’s absence but Rudy Gobert’s injury absence. I summarized where they were

The Jazz were actually the slowest team in the league last season, with 91.6 possessions per game...Gordon Hayward moved on to the Boston Celtics in one of the bigger moves of this past summer; Rudy Gobert has been on and off the court this season with injuries, playing only 18 of Utah’s 34 games thus far this season. What they’re doing is actually pretty interesting given that they’ve largely resisted the trend across the league.

Yet this past summer, Jazz radio announcer David Locke wrote about this very issue by looking at a counter-trend to the “pace and space” revolution that he appropriately called “slow and space” -- teams that slow the game down to focus on half-court execution, but still shoot a high rate of 3-point shots. The Jazz are among those teams... the problem, even if there is reason to believe the Jazz have adopted a sound strategy: lacking a star playmaker makes putting points on the board extremely difficult.

At that point, the Jazz were still not far outside playoff contention (the bottom half of the playoff seeds were all struggling at that time), but they were also just 15-21. And they weren’t a whole lot better record-wise (22-28) when they issued the Warriors a 129-99 beatdown on January 30. Notable about that game: the Warriors had all four All-Stars, were coming off a four-day break, and the only rotation player really missing was Jordan Bell.

That game didn’t necessarily kick off a winning streak, but it did take it to the next level; that blowout win at home was the third of 11 straight wins and the early phase of a streak in which they won 20 of 22 games. They offered a more hobbled Warriors team another beatdown at Oracle Arena and now amazingly find themselves in position to capture the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

Donovan Mitchell has been impressive

A large part of this remarkable turn of events for the Jazz was unanticipated before the season has been the emergence of Donovan Mitchell, a bonafide Rookie of the Year candidate and the Utah’s leading scorer this year.

With the Jazz having clinched a playoff berth, Mitchell is the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony did it.

And given what I wrote earlier this season about the Jazz not having a go-to option, Mitchell’s steadily building confidence in the league has made a massive difference for this team. Going back to that previous poll, Jazz fans have a right to be high on their rookie.

With two games left, the Jazz can still earn the third seed in the Western Conference if they win tonight against the Warriors and tomorrow night against the Portland Trail Blazers; if they lose both games, they could end up in seventh — in both scenarios, the Warriors could face them early in the playoffs. And that’s where things perhaps get interesting for the Warriors: how do they play this game? How important is it to avoid the Jazz in either the first or second round?

If you believe the Warriors are destined to make the NBA Finals anyway, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re looking for the optimal matchups for the Warriors, the outcome of this game will actually matter to you.

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