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PREVIEW: Spurs need to beat shorthanded Jazz to keep pace in playoff race

The Jazz will be without five of their best players, and the Spurs' young core will need to take advantage as the race for the final playoff spot gets closer.

SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs are halfway through their seeding games in the bubble, and they're in the middle of a tightly-packed race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Their noon game against the Utah Jazz is one they had better win, and they'll certainly have an opportunity.

Here are three things to watch for in today's game:

Spurs' Young Guns

Coach Popovich has said repeatedly that this restart is about development for the young guys, and while they've shown promise, they've also had some growing pains.

Lonnie Walker IV tweeted an apology to fans after scoring nine points in the loss to Denver, saying that his father called him after the game, and he'd bring the Lonnie Walker that fans expect.

Walker hasn't had a bad stretch of play in the bubble by any means, but hasn't exactly stuffed the stat sheet either. He's shown flashes of his speed and leaping ability, and his shot selection has been excellent. That propensity to pass up an open three to drive into a crowd is gone, and he's hit 5-13 attempts from deep, a respectable 38% clip.

Still, he's hard on himself because he wants to be great. San Antonio has won the two games that he scored double figures in, and lost the two games that he didn't. Expect motivated play out of Walker today.

Derrick White shot 4-10 from three in the loss to Denver, he's at 15-33 (45%) in the bubble, which puts him in the top five on threes made in the restart. The efficiency is impressive, and so is the volume. Popovich came out and said he'd be happy if he shot 10 threes a game, and he might just do that.

Dejounte Murray's play has come under scrutiny in the bubble, with a few miscues as the Spurs blew a late lead to Philadelphia and just four points in the loss to Denver. He needs to be more consistent on both ends for this team, and to do that, he'll need to make better decisions on both ends.

Rookie Keldon Johnson followed up a then career-high 15 points against Philadelphia with a 20-piece against Denver. He's one of those guys who makes things happen on the floor. Coach Pop doesn't need to run sets to get him open, he just attacks the boards, attacks the rim, and attacks intelligently in the flow of the offense. He looks like he could be a starter in this league right now.

Jakob Poeltl has been key for the Spurs, and if he doesn't play well, it hurts them. He won't have to contend with Gobert today, so perhaps he can practice finishing strong in the paint against weaker competition.

Jazz Sitting Four Starters

Utah has long clinched their spot in the playoffs, and home court doesn't really matter anymore, so it looks like Pop's old assistant Quin Snyder is taking a page out of his old sensei's book and giving his main guys a game off to rest up and deal with the bumps and bruises of the restart.

The Jazz will be without Rudy Gobert's elite rolling and rim protection, as well as the wing defense and shot creation from Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Royce O'Neale will also sit, and Bojan Bogdanovic was already out for the restart

Surely Joe Ingles and the Jazz reserves will give it their best shot, but there's no team in the NBA that would be expected to beat a team chasing a playoff spot without five of their best players.

Tight Playoff Race

No single game is a must-win for the Spurs yet, but each of their remaining four games carries a great deal of significance if they hope to make the playoffs.

The Spurs started their bubble run with close wins against Sacramento and Memphis, but couldn't close out against Philadelphia and Denver. San Antonio now sits two games behind the Grizzlies, who are actively tumbling out of the eighth seed. Portland is in ninth, and the white hot Suns jumped the Spurs in the standings yesterday.

If the Spurs can pull out a win today, they'll move to a game behind Portland and a game and a half behind the Grizzlies, who play the Thunder later in the day. If they lose, they could drop to the behind the Kings and Pelicans at the bottom of the barrel of teams fighting for that last playoff spot.

The Kings have a winnable matchup against Brooklyn, and New Orleans takes on the Wizards, who are one of the worst teams in the bubble.

If San Antonio can take care of business against this banged up Jazz team, they'll be in tenth, nipping at the heels of the two teams standing in their way of a 23rd-consecutive playoff berth. If they lose, they could be staring up at five teams in the way, three games out with three games to play.

You know what? I changed my mind. This is a must-win game for San Antonio.

The story below will be updated with live highlights, play-by-play and analysis. Follow along on Twitter @bigfunpod for up to the minute coverage.

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