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Jazz better, will make the playoffs

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What seemed unlikely just last month now appears to be a sure thing: The Jazz will make the playoffs.

(That could leave them with the longest intact streak, by the way. For years they've trailed the Blazers in that category by one season, but Portland is in serious jeopardy of self-terminating its streak.)

Why will the Jazz make the playoffs? For one obvious reason, they're playing better now. It took some time, but they've not only adjusted to the new defensive rules, they're now using them to their advantage.

They've figured out that Greg Ostertag actually can thrive under the new rules, that the 2.9-second rule keeps him moving but also keeps him in the paint, where he can be a huge defensive presence.

The Jazz have also gotten that inexplicable turnover rash they suffered from the first six weeks of the season under control, and they've cut way down on their ill-advised quick shots.

They're not going to keep winning the rest of the season at the rate they have recently—seven of eight, as of Thursday's victory over the Rockets—but neither are they likely to go on any extended streaks of bad ball, as they experienced earlier.

If they can get through a grueling February during which the Olympic folks have given them the opportunity to play nine straight road games, including six in nine nights, the rest of the season should seem like a relative cakewalk.

Another factor in their improved play has been more consistency from Karl Malone. And no, that doesn't mean statistical consistency. It means being mentally committed to this team. It makes a difference.

But perhaps the biggest reason the Jazz will make the playoffs is the fact the Western Conference isn't as strong as everyone expected it to be.

As is the case annually, some teams that were supposed to be better aren't.

The Warriors, finally healthy and with a coach—Dave Cowens—held in high regard, were expected to be improved. But after a fast start they faltered, Cowens was fired and their season is all but over.

The Nuggets lost Antonio McDyess and coach Dan Issel and are in their usual disarray.

The Rockets lost Maurice Taylor and Glen Rice and are a one-man team.

That leaves 10 teams competing for eight playoff spots, and here's how the race shapes up:

Five Western teams are in. Barring absolute disaster, the Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Mavericks and Timberwolves are not only the best in the West, but very likely the best in the NBA.

Five other teams — the Jazz, Sonics, Clippers, Suns and Blazers — are vying for the other three berths.

Forget the Suns; they're coming apart at the seams. If they make a coaching change soon, it might give them something to rally around for a run at the postseason. But it seems there are other problems there, chiefly chemistry problems in an ego-dominated backcourt.

The Blazers probably will make it on talent alone, unless they trade away Rasheed Wallace. Why? Because that will signal a desire to get into the lottery, to start retooling.

That leaves the Clippers and Sonics, and that race is anybody's guess. Seattle has more experience but a higher self-destruct potential, the Clippers have more raw talent but trouble winning on the road.

And then there is the Jazz, clearly the strongest of this bunch. Before the season the prediction here was they would win 49 games and exit in the first round of the playoffs. That estimate gets revised downward now, to somewhere in the 42-44 range.

And that will get them in the playoffs.

E-mail: rich@desnews.com