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Utah Jazz: Wild, wild West soon to get more wild

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In the wacky race that is the NBA's Western Conference, just 13 nights' worth of regular-season play remain — and not one contender has qualified yet for postseason play.

But that could change tonight.

With a win over defending NBA-champion San Antonio and a Golden State loss at Memphis, the Northwest Division-leading Jazz would ensure themselves of a second straight playoff berth.

On the flip side, either a San Antonio win or a Warriors loss puts the 52-23 Spurs — winners of eight in a row — officially in.

So big?

You betcha.

Not that it's any different than it will be from here on out, as the 50-26 Jazz jockey for playoff position position while closing with a half dozen games against five teams — Utah also finishes the season April 16 at San Antonio — currently sitting in top-eight Western postseason spots.

"Right now every game is big," small forward Andrei Kirilenko said. "You don't need to tell us, because ... we're in a pretty good position, but we want to be better. I think we can be better. We can be a little higher spot, so just fight, play hard and I think everything will be good."

With a league-best 34-4 home record, homecourt advantage is what the Jazz still have their sights set on.

"That's what we're playing for right now," point guard Deron Williams said. "It's still definitely accomplishable right now."

Getting there, though, means plowing through with some degree of success in what arguably is the NBA's toughest six-game closing schedule: Between the Spurs tonight and at the end of the season, Utah also visits New Orleans and Dallas and plays host as well to Denver and Houston.

Not that the Jazz would have it any other way, they claim.

"I'd say it's good," Kirilenko said, "because you kind of get in that mood, get in motion and get in that kind of rhythm which playoff games will be."

"These last six games that we have, we're gonna be excited to play every one of these games," power forward Carlos Boozer added. "For us, that's more preparation for how the playoffs are gonna be — because every one of those games are going to be so important to us. So, for me, I'd rather have the schedule be like it is right now for us — because it gives us great preparation for what's to come."

Last season, when the Jazz knew they were virtually locked into a first-round playoff series with Houston for what seemed like forever, Utah lost six of its last nine games.

Boozer himself admitted they had trouble getting excited for those last several regular-season games.

Yet the Jazz advanced to the Western Conference finals anyway.

"It didn't hurt us that bad, looking back," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "But you can't rely on that."

This time around, the Jazz would much rather head to the postseason with momentum.

And who's to say, Williams suggested, they can't do it even with the daunting schedule they have.

"I think it's a good test for us — a chance to see where we're really at," he said.

"We might go in on a roll against these top six teams," Williams added. "That would be fine with me."

The fact the last six includes two meetings with the Spurs — who easily eliminated the Jazz from the conference finals 4-1, and who have won 17 straight regular-season games over Utah in San Antonio — is fine with them as well.

"I don't know who says (the Jazz want to avoid the Spurs in the playoffs)," Boozer said. "I think we match up good with 'em. I think we have a lot of good pieces, and I think we're a more confident team than last year. Last year they took it to us pretty good. I think we have a different mentality this year. We may be able to go back at 'em in the playoffs."

"I think we can match up with anybody," Williams said. "I'm not gonna say we can't beat somebody on their floor. I think we can."

That said, the Jazz really do have utmost respect for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs.

"They're always ready to play," Boozer said. "They always have somebody step up when they need somebody to step up, and they're always a great challenge for every team they play against."

Spurs at Jazz

Today, 6 p.m.


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com