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Jazz in a tight playoff race

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Pull out the pocket schedule, scan the next nine, and allow reality to settle in.

If they're serious about making a push for the postseason, this - the Jazz have to realize - is the time to make their move.

They do seem to sense it, too.

"It's extremely imperative," forward Tom Gugliotta said, "to play our best basketball now."

From tonight through March 27, six games in nine for the Jazz are against teams that do not currently hold down an NBA playoff position.

Two of the three that are just happen to be against the same opponent, Denver - the very team the Jazz are trying to chase down for the eighth and final postseason spot in the league's Western Conference standings.

After trouncing Washington on Tuesday night, the 34-31 Nuggets are 1.5 games up on the Jazz - with face-to-face showdowns still go Sunday night and again on March 27.

Portland, meanwhile, is stalking Utah and Denver from behind. And the Trail Blazers, another 1.5 games behind Utah, are quite capable of damage.

The evidence: consider their 91-70 win over the Jazz last Saturday night, one in which coach Jerry Sloan said his club put on "a pretty awful display of basketball."

"It's between us, Denver and Portland," Jazz guard Mo Williams said, "so we just want to put things in our hands, instead of putting them in somebody else's and hoping they lose."

Doing that means winning games against opponents like tonight's, Golden State.

The Warriors are well out of the West's playoff picture, yet they've taken two of three games from the Jazz already this season.

"You have to be real careful in the stretch," swingman Raja Bell said, "because there's some teams in there that really don't have anything to win or lose.

"They're dangerous," Bell added, "because they really don't care."

Don't care, that is, if they just happen to spoil things for teams like the Jazz.

At 32-32, rebuilding Utah is far beyond where most would have imagined it would be 64 games into the season.

Yet the playoffs are within such tantalizingly close reach that not making them - especially considering Denver's many stumbles in recent weeks - would be considered a travesty by some.

"If you're a competitor," Sloan said, "I would think this would be the time of year to play your best basketball."

Scheduling should help the Jazz in that effort.

With 14 of their 19 remaining games coming against current playoff participants and seven coming against the Western Conference's top-four teams, the Trail Blazers have the toughest road ahead among the three fighting for that last spot.

But the Jazz - like the Nuggets - have only 10 left against those holding down, at least for now, a postseason position.

Moreover, Utah has one less game than Denver to still play against the West's best - and one more than Denver to play at home.

On one hand - with 18 games still to go before the Jazz's regular season ends April 14 - there is a growing sense among the ranks that time is running short.

"There are not enough games left," Bell said, "for us to really take any off."

On the other, there is cause for hope that the Jazz may be able to take advantage of the days and games that do remain.

Said Gugliotta, whose point of reference is a Feb. 19 trade in which he came to Utah from Phoenix: "We haven't really clicked on all cylinders in any one game I can remember."

If ever there was a time to start a run, then, this is it.

"We are in a situation where just to make the playoffs we have got to put everything we have into it, for every game we have left," Sloan said after one in which the Jazz did just that, Monday night's win over the Los Angeles Lakers. "There can't be any games that we don't come ready to play.

"That's the fun part of it - to see if we can win enough games to get ourselves in the playoffs," he added Tuesday morning. "If not, then we go home."

April 15.

The pocket schedule say so.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com