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Jazz can’t afford to look past Clippers

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LOS ANGELES — Gordan Giricek ponders the half-dozen games that remain and faces reality head-on.

Simply stated, he can handle the truth.

"We have a tough schedule in front of us," the Jazz's starting shooting guard says.

Tonight, Utah visits the Los Angeles Clippers, 27-50, — a team that has lost 10 in a row and is an opponent that a team still trying to make the playoffs simply cannot afford to be beaten by.

A team, that is, like the Jazz.

The following four teams on Utah's schedule will be playing in the postseason: Memphis (at home Monday), Dallas (there on Thursday), Houston (at home Saturday) and Minnesota (there on April 12).

All of which conspires to make winning that much more pressing.

"If we win over Clippers," Giricek said, "everything will look better."

Relatively speaking.

Because in a battle as tight as the one the 39-37 Jazz are in with Portland and Denver for the NBA's eighth and final Western Conference playoff position, little looks especially good.

The Trail Blazers, like the Jazz, have six games to go. Three are at home, three on the road. Two are against San Antonio, and two against the Los Angeles Lakers — merely two of the top four teams in the West.

The Nuggets have just five games still to play, including only two at home. Three of the five are against certain playoff-bound opponents from the West, including one each against Sacramento and San Antonio.

Perhaps the best news for the Jazz: The Blazers and Nuggets still have one game left against each other, meaning one of the two is bound to lose at least one more.

That face-to-face meeting comes Saturday in Denver.

Until then, and probably even after that, 10th-place Utah seems to have no other choice but to take the approach that it must win each of the last six in order to overtake the two other teams battling for that eighth-place spot.

"If you want to be in playoffs," Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko said, "you have to win the games."

"We need to go and win every game," Giricek added. "That's a positive mentality. Then, at the end, we'll see how many we won."

Which is pretty much what Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has been trying to tell his gaggle of rocket scientists all season long.

"We've always tried to do that," Sloan said of his "Just win, baby" school of coaching.

"(But) I don't know that we've always played as if it looks that way," the Jazz coach added after Friday night's loss to San Antonio. "We haven't had the kind of efforts you'd really like to see with everybody."

Yet the Jazz are still in the hunt; still a couple of games above .500.

Maybe it's because Sloan has squeezed much more out of them than any other coach could. Or maybe it's just because they see the carrot dangling in front of them.

Sloan, whose club closes its regular season against Phoenix on April 14 at the Delta Center, would suggest it's as much, maybe more, the latter as it is the former.

"Winning makes you want to win more," he said. "Hopefully, they want to win more. If they don't, then we go home.

"I'd like to present it a little bit clearer for them," Sloan added, "but I don't know how to do that."

Truth be known, no one could.


Race to the wire

A look at what's left for the three teams still fighting for the NBA's eighth and final Western Conference playoff position — the Jazz, Portland and Denver:

UTAH (six games remaining): Tonight at Los Angeles Clippers; Monday vs. Memphis; Thursday at Dallas; Saturday vs. Houston; April 12 at Minnesota; April 14 vs. Phoenix.

DENVER (five games remaining): Wednesday at Phoenix; Friday at Houston; Saturday vs. Portland; April 12 vs. Sacramento; April 14 at San Antonio.

PORTLAND (six games remaining): Tuesday at Los Angeles Lakers; Wednesday vs. Golden State; Friday at San Antonio; Saturday at Denver; April 12 vs. San Antonio; April 14 vs. Los Angeles Lakers.

Race for eighth

The Jazz, Nuggets and Trail Blazers are battling for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. The winner will face the West's No. 1 seed in first round.

Team Rec. Pct. Gms

8. Portland 39-36 .520 7

8. Denver 40-37 .519 5

10. Utah 39-37 .513 6


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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