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Jazz schedule gets tough as end of season nears

One look at the 14 games that remain for the Jazz in the NBA's 2002-2003 regular season, and the conspiracy theorists come out of the woodwork.

"I think they stacked it like that on purpose," Greg Ostertag said.

Ostertag, of course, was joking.

We think.

Either way, the Jazz's starting center has a point: The NBA's schedule-maker didn't do Utah any favors down the stretch.

Nine of the Jazz's final 14 are against teams in position to make the playoffs, including one with Houston, which going into Friday night's games was tied with Phoenix at 35-32 for the eighth and final postseason position in the league's Western Conference.

Four of those nine are on the road.

And then there are Utah's last three: April 11 vs. Dallas, April 14 vs. San Antonio, April 16 at Sacramento.

Ow.

Somebody decided to stick it to the Jazz, and it couldn't hurt much more if they had used an ice pick in one hand and a stone-shaved shank in the other.

So what's a team like Utah to do? Try to make the best of it, one can only suppose.

"Those are the teams you're gonna have to play in the playoffs, anyway," forward Scott Padgett said, "so you may as well learn how to beat them at the end of the season."

The Jazz may have no other option if they intend to qualify for a 20th straight postseason appearance.

"Coming down the stretch, it could be a close race as far as getting in the playoffs," Padgett said. "So we're gonna have to be able to beat them, maybe to even get in."

The Jazz do catch one break in that eight of their final 14 are at home, including tonight's meeting with the struggling Los Angeles Clippers.

That's the same number of remaining home games as the Los Angeles Lakers, and two more than both Houston and Phoenix — the three teams with which the 39-29 Jazz are fighting for the Western Conference's final three playoff positions.

But that's also where the relief seems to cease.

Utah's nine left vs. playoff teams is the same number as what remains for the Rockets, though the Jazz's schedule features six vs. the top-four in the West, whereas Houston's includes only three (one each vs. Sacramento, San Antonio and Portland).

Phoenix, meanwhile, has only eight remaining vs. playoff teams, and the Lakers just seven.

That serves only to amplify the meaning of an about-to-begin four-game homestand for the Jazz, who also face playoff-bound Boston on Monday night, Portland on Wednesday night and playoff-contender Milwaukee on Friday night at the Delta Center.

"I think that last week (Dallas, San Antonio, Sacramento) is really tough, so you'd like to take care of business to where it won't come to (needing to win those last three to make the postseason)," Padgett said.

"But, if it does, and you're deserving to be in," Padgett added, "you should (be able to beat them anyway)."

Though they are on a two-game win streak, the Jazz also have lost four of their last eight.

That in mind, they would very much like to continue their reversal of fortune and go into the postseason on a roll.

If their schedule does not allow that, though, at least they can head into mid-April hoping a long list of one quality opponent after another will toughen them up for the playoffs.

"You've got to find out who you are," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said.

"It will kind of give us a grade on how good a team we are," Ostertag added. "Especially the last three games — they're the best three teams in the league."

It's that last week that really jumps off the Jazz's pocket schedule.

"You always want to be on a roll going into the playoffs, (because) if you're playing well, you're gonna have more confidence," Padgett said. "And, then, especially with the teams we have at the end of the season, if you can go in on a roll against those teams, you know you're playing well."

Until then, though, there is also business at hand.

That fact is not lost on Sloan, who is not counting his club in the playoffs just yet.

"You've got to beat the other teams to get there first," the Jazz coach said with an eye toward tonight's game against the 22-46 Clippers, "and that's the most important concern."

That, and unraveling the conspiracy. Who could it possibly be that would have it in for the Jazz, anyway?


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com