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    The finish line is near. The marathon that is the NBA regular season is nearing it’s conclusion, but there are still a few hurdles to clear. There’s a mountain to climb, a lake to get through and a final sprint in the home stretch.

    Every game down the stretch is huge, but three in particular stand out. Two games are against Denver, one in Colorado as the front end of a back-to-back and the other the final game of the season. The 10th-place Nuggets are just 2.5 games behind the fifth-place Wolves in a race that probably goes down to the wire.

    The third marquee game is against the Utah Jazz in Minneapolis, on tap tonight. This one might be the most important of them all. Utah s just a half-game behind the Wolves. The winner secures the tie-breaker, so a loss could be the difference between hosting a game one in the playoffs or traveling on the road, or even the playoff altogether as an eighth-seed and the ninth-seed.

    The implications are huge, but the Wolves at least have the luxury of playing at home. With the way they have been playing of late, they’re going to need all advantages they can get. A narrow victory over Dallas, a win over Atlanta that required a 56-point performance from Karl-Anthony Towns and a brutal loss to Memphis are just some of the recent results that haven’t been pretty.

    It’s really been a stretch stemming since mid January of inconsistent play, mostly on the defensive end, that has plagued the team. About a little more than halfway through the season, the Wolves were fourth in the West by a considerable margin. It was led by their offense, but their defense stepped up in ways that took pressure off the offense.

    The Wolves ranked in the top-five in opponents’ turnovers, opponents’ free throw attempts and defensive deflections through January 16. They weren’t the best defensive unit, allowing the second highest opponent field goal percentage, but they were disruptive and were able to defense without fouling.

    All of those have turned for the worst since January 16, now ranking in the bottom 20 in each category. And since Jimmy Butler went down, it’s been even worse. That’s not entirely surprising given Butler’s reputation on the defensive end, but the trend was disturbing even before his injury.

    The Wolves aren’t going to hold teams below 100 points or below 45 percent shooting very often, but they can win the turnover differential and they can jump the passing lanes and they can be a disruptive defense with, or without, Butler out there.

    Certainly the Wolves will love to welcome Butler back as soon as possible, and it sounds like a return is soon but not tonight. He’ll be a welcome sight and maybe inject some of that energy of the defensive end once again.

    They’ll have to work for their offense just as hard as their defense in this contest with the Jazz, though. They’re an outstanding defensive team, ranking second in the NBA in defensive rating and have a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate in Rudy Gobert.

    To beat him, Towns is going to have to pull him away from the basket. If KAT isn’t hitting his 3-pointers, Gobert will park himself in the paint, and lock the door. As an interior based offense, it is vital that Gobert is out of the picture as often as possible, otherwise life will be difficult for everyone on the Wolves.

    Lineups:

    Tyus Jones – PG
    Andrew Wiggins – SG
    Nemanja Bjelica – SF
    Taj Gibson – PF
    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Ricky Rubio – PG
    Donovan Mitchell – SG
    Joe Ingles – SF
    Derrick Favors – PF
    Rudy Gobert – C

    Injuries:

    Jimmy Butler (knee) – OUT
    Derrick Rose (ankle) – ACTIVE
    Jeff Teague (knee) – OUT

    Raul Neto (wrist) – OUT
    Ricky Rubio (hamstring) – ACTIVE
    Thabo Sefolosha (knee) – OUT

    Media:

    Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN

    When: 7:00 ET/6:00 CT

    How: Fox Sports North

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