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Jazz looking to improve prospects in playoffs

Not long ago, the Jazz were peering back, worried about being caught from behind and falling out of the NBA's Western Conference playoff picture altogether.

Oh, how a five-game winning streak can change a team's attitude.

Now, with 11 games to go in their regular-season schedule — including a back-to-back set that has them playing host to Milwaukee tonight at the Delta Center, then visiting San Antonio on Saturday night — the Jazz's focus is forward-ho.

Sure, coach Jerry Sloan warns against guarding the rear.

"You know," he said, "you can be rolling along, and this thing can cave in on you real quick."

But even with that in mind, making the playoffs now seems well within reach for the Jazz. Moreover, finishing seventh in the West, or better, also appears to be a quite-realistic possibility.

The Jazz's apparent new goal, then: catching the Portland Trail Blazers, who currently sit fifth in the West, two games ahead of sixth-place Utah.

"They lose a couple, we win a couple — there it is," forward Matt Harpring said.

It is with good reason, too, that the 42-29 Jazz have their sights set on fifth: A potential first-round matchup with Minnesota, rather than San Antonio, Sacramento or Dallas.

The top-three playoff seeds in the West seem somewhat secure, with some combination of Dallas, Sacramento and San Antonio likely finishing first through third.

Minnesota currently is fourth, one game ahead of fading Portland.

If Utah can catch the Blazers and finish fifth, that would set up an opening-round series between the Jazz and the Timberwolves.

Not lost on the Jazz should be the fact they went 3-1 against Minnesota, and that the 'Wolves are the only top-four team in the West against whom Utah will have a winning record this season.

Yet all's not lost if the Jazz do not wind up with the 'Wolves as their first-round foe.

With the exception of San Antonio, Utah has at least one win against each of the West's other top-eight this season.

"If you look at the matchup this year, I guess you could say (yes)," Jazz center Greg Ostertag said when asked if Minnesota is the potential playoff opponent against which Utah matches up best.

"But, at the same time," Ostertag added, "we've played with everybody here — except San Antonio."

The Jazz have two games left against the Spurs, including Saturday's, but Utah is 0-2 against San Antonio this season, with one loss close (remember Tim Duncan's baseline jumper at the buzzer?) and the other being a blowout.

The Jazz also have lost nine straight to the Spurs, whose Twin Towers of Duncan and David Robinson present all sorts of individual matchup problems for Utah.

Sacramento, which eliminated the Jazz from the first round of last season's playoffs, and Dallas, which eliminated them in the opening round two seasons ago, also would be likely to give the Jazz fits this postseason. Both have won two of three from Utah this season, with one game against each still to be played.

All that considered, positioning themselves for a meeting with Minnesota may be the Jazz's best bet for advancing to the second round for the first time since 1999-2000.

Doing so also probably would mean Utah finishes fifth in the conference standings — signifying it did not back into anything, and that it did not allow the seventh-place Los Angeles Lakers to sneak back ahead of it.

That should be all the incentive the Jazz need to finish strong — though they know that even if they do, there still is much that remains out of their hands.

"A lot can change in the standings, you know," Harpring said. "A lot of people are right behind each other, and people can catch each other."

That said, the Jazz — at least lately — are doing their part. Since March 18, they've beaten Denver, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston and, on Wednesday night, Portland.

"I think we've proven that we can play with just about anybody," Ostertag said, the San Antonio exception conceded.

"We've surprised a lot of people, and I think we've done more than what people expected," he added. "I don't think anybody expected us right now to be in the sixth spot, battling for the fifth spot."

Looking ahead

A look at the Jazz's four potential first-round postseason opponents with season record, as things now stand in the Western Conference playoff picture:

Minnesota (3-1)

Jazz won first three

San Antonio (0-2)

Two games left

Sacramento (1-2)

Both Jazz losses close

Dallas (1-2)

Last loss a blowout


E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com