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Jazz wonder when things turned bad

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Utah forward Matt Harpring looks on from the bench during lopsided loss to Phoenix.

Utah forward Matt Harpring looks on from the bench during lopsided loss to Phoenix.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

Where, oh where, did it all go wrong?

And when, precisely?

With just two games to go in their 2006-07 regular season, and homecourt advantage in their first-round NBA playoff series in peril, the Jazz wonder.

Coach Jerry Sloan firmly believes it goes back to mid-March, when his then 43-19 club went 0-for-4 on a four-games-in-five-nights Eastern road trip that included a big blown lead in Miami, a failed comeback bid at Orlando, a late-game loss in Philadelphia and a disheartening defeat at Cleveland.

Veteran guard Derek Fisher skips ahead to later in the same month, when in the same end-of-March week the Jazz both clinched their first playoff berth since 2003 and — three nights later — the Northwest Division championship.

That's when the focus may have shifted to securing homecourt advantage in their opening-round postseason series — and yet the now 49-31 Jazz have gone a humbling 2-7 since then.

"I honestly think that's where the problem started," said Fisher, who earlier in his career made three successful NBA title runs with the Los Angeles Lakers. "I mean, I think we got into this mindset of trying to protect something as opposed to just continuing to go and play the way we'd been playing for quite some time.

"We started breaking down the math of how we can have homecourt advantage and this and that — and I think we forgot that it's really one game at a time in this league.

"We started playing not to lose, as opposed to continuing to play to win," he added. "We weren't as aggressive offensively, not as aggressive defensively, allowing teams to bring the game to us."

As a result, the Jazz head into tonight's home game against Portland — their second-to-last outing of the regular season — knowing that Houston controls homecourt-edge fate in the upcoming 4-5 seed series between the two.

Unless the Jazz beat the Trail Blazers tonight, Phoenix beats the Rockets tonight and — if those two things happen — Utah beats Houston in the regular-season finale for both on Wednesday night, the Rockets will have homecourt advantage in a series that will start either Saturday or Sunday in Houston.

But if the Jazz can win out and Houston loses its last two, the series will open this coming weekend at EnergySolutions Arena.

Do you care about so many particulars?

Fisher, for one, does not.

"It doesn't matter who we play or where we play right now, because we're not playing the type of basketball we're capable of playing," he said after the Jazz were blown out Saturday by Phoenix, marking Utah's sixth loss in seven games. "It wouldn't matter if we're 1 seed, 8 seed, home or away. You know, right now, we won't get it done.

"That's more of the issue — correcting the things we need to correct, and give ourselves a chance to beat whoever it is we play wherever it is we play."

That being the case, one wonders where the correcting should start.

There are so many easy-to-pick targets, though, pinpointing is no easy chore.

"Are we preparing for a particular game, being focused and being ready to do the things we need to do to win? I just don't think we've been able to do that," Fisher said. "We haven't been able to grasp what we're trying to accomplish on the offensive end. We haven't been able to grasp how to be effective defensively. We're just going out and playing. I can't really point to one thing and say, 'This is the reason why.'

"You can't point to one guy and say, 'This is the reason the Jazz are struggling,"' he added. "It's a group problem, and we're going to have to get turned around as a group."

Any group, however, is composed of individual components — and several with the Jazz can be seen as a contributing factor in the late-season collapse.

That includes starting center Mehmet Okur, who since playing in his first NBA All-Star Game back in mid-February has had four games in which he has shot just 25 percent or worse from the field and six games which he's failed to score in double-digits.

It includes starting power forward Carlos Boozer, who has 52 double-doubles this season — but has scored above his team-leading 21.0 points per game average just once in Utah's past nine games.

It includes the starting backcourt of Fisher and point Deron Williams, who have combined to shoot just 32.6 percent from the field in the Jazz's past six losses — more than 10 percent below their combined season shooting percentage.

And it even includes starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko, whose absence in Utah's past five straight games — due to a broken bone in the tip of his left thumb — has been felt.

"As the season started to wind down," Fisher said, timetabling back to Sloan's referenced Eastern swing, "it was like we took that last 15 games or so and we started looking all the way until the end — knowing that we would be in the playoffs."

Now they're paying the price and left to contemplate if they've waited too long to change course.

"It's unfortunate, the timing," Fisher added. "So, we're not gonna have a choice but to get it together."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com