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Sloan likes playing tough foes

Better opposition gets his players ready, he thinks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — If coach Jerry Sloan had his way, every Jazz game would be like the one they have today.

Western Conference showdown. Battle between two of the NBA's division leaders, Midwest (and conference) front-runner Utah vs. Pacific pace-setter Sacramento. Two very good basketball teams duking it out, with playoff implications on the line as both wind down the final fourth of their season.

"To me," Sloan said of all the extra meaning in this afternoon's game, "that's exciting."

Fortunately, perhaps, for the Jazz, not all of their remaining opponents are as strong as the Chris Webber-led Kings; there are a few patsies along the way as Utah tries to position itself for the top seed in the West and the home-court playoff advantage that goes with it.

Still, Sloan insists he'd prefer to hoe the rough row.

"I would rather go every night knowing that you have a team that's going to beat you," he said, "and if you aren't ready to play, you don't deserve to win."

Utah was reminded the hard way that not every game against a club with a losing record is an automatic victory, as it lost at Boston to open its last road trip.

This journey — four games in a row (Sacramento, Golden State, Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers ) away from home, actually interrupted between Games 1 and 2 by a quick return to Salt Lake to check for messages and kiss the kids good night — opens just the way Sloan would want.

"Sacramento's a great team," he said.

And the Kings — along with the Jazz, San Antonio, the defending NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland — are one of five powers with a good chance at winning the West. With 19-to-22 games remaining in the five's respective 82-game regular seasons, in fact, only .038 in winning percentage separates No. 1 (Utah) from No. 5 (Portland).

"It is a close race," Sloan said. "If you want it, it's there. If you don't — you have a little bit of a letdown, other things are more important to you — then you can be in trouble."

A glance, then, at how the chase shapes up for the five in front:

UTAH: Six of 21 games left for the 43-18 Jazz are against top-five West teams, including two (counting today) against Sacramento, two against Portland, and one each against San Antonio and the Lakers. Six of Utah's last seven games, however, are against teams that either will not, or are not likely to, make playoffs. That includes one game against Chicago, easily the NBA's worst team.

SACRAMENTO: The 41-19 Kings also have six games left against the West's top-five, including two against the Lakers and one each against Portland and San Antonio. Sacramento, which has a seemingly easy close against struggling Vancouver and Denver, still must face Philadelphia, owner of the best record in the league at 46-16.

SAN ANTONIO: The 43-19 Spurs have only four games left vs. fellow West leaders. One is against the Jazz, whom they have already beaten three times this season. Two meetings with Portland remain, as does one with Sacramento. San Antonio has a tough finish, however, as two of its final four opponents are the Kings and the Trail Blazers.

LOS ANGELES: The 41-20 Lakers also have only four to go against the best from the West — the two vs. Sacramento, one vs. the Jazz and one against Portland. Also working in L.A.'s favor is two games still to played against Washington, the NBA's second-worst team to Chicago, and one remaining with the Bulls.

PORTLAND: Like the Jazz and Kings, the 42-21 Blazers have six games to go with other Western-winner hopefuls. But they have only 19 games still on their schedule, at least one fewer than their closest competition. Portland's bright side is that it has two games left with hurtin' Golden State, and it need not fret over either either Atlantic Division-leader Philadelphia or Central Division-leader Milwaukee.

With the pack bunched like it is, and opportunity for beating up on each other ample, it is impossible — even as mid-March approaches — to give any of the five any sort of nod over the rest.

Sloan, however, thinks he knows what it will take to earn that distinction.

"There are things you know you have to do to win," he said. "It doesn't make any difference who you play.

"I think defense and rebounding are going to be critical things for you to have a chance to be competitive as you finish up the regular season. If you can't do those things, then you might be out of a homecourt advantage right away."

If Sloan had his way, the Jazz would do both well. And they'd do them against nothing but darn-good opponents, too.

If he had his way.

The schedule-makers, however, were not so kind. Or cruel.