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Jazz mood is better now than at this time last year

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago at this time, the Utah Jazz locker room was, needless to say, not a very fun place to be.

In fact, you might find folks cracking more smiles at a funeral than you would in the Jazz's EnergySolutions Arena inner sanctum circa April 2011.

With the abrupt retirement of venerable coach Jerry Sloan last February, followed by the sudden trade of star guard Deron Williams and the team's frustrating free-fall from its stellar 27-13 start to an eventual disappointing 39-43 finish, just about everybody associated with the franchise was feeling pretty darned grumpy a year ago.

And rightfully so.

A year later, though, with a relatively young and inexperienced team which wasn't supposed to be a postseason contender now knocking on the door of nailing down a playoff spot, that Jazz locker room might be the happiest place on earth this side of Disneyland.

"We've got something to fight for," veteran forward Paul Millsap said. "Everybody's excited about this push we're making, everybody's excited about the playoffs, and everybody's on the same page.

"Last year, we never really had that, we had different things going on. But this year, it seems like there's more focus. (Last year) it was really gloomy — there was no sunshine at all. But this year, we're seeing better days and we've got better days ahead of us."

Asked to size up the difference between last season's team chemistry compared to now, Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said it was "Oh, night and day.

It's so much calmer now," he added, noting he and his players have grown much more comfortable with each other in a year's time.

"We've been together for a shortened season, but it's a season and we've had some tremendous growth together," Corbin said. "And it's gonna continue. The guys feel good about where they are, feel good about who they are, and I think they feel comfortable with who I am with them. We'll continue to grow; it's just a different feeling altogether (than a year ago)."

IT'S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR: Corbin acknowledged there's so much excitement surrounding his ballclub these days that you can almost touch it and taste it.

"It's a great time of year, man, and it's great to be in the mix of a (postseason) battle, first of all to get in a playoff spot and then to have a chance to compete in the playoffs," he said. "As a competitor, you love this time of year. And we have an opportunity to continue to seize it.

"Every game now is like a playoff game because we need to win it to improve where we are, and the guys have responded very well. I'm excited about it.

"They're focused; they understand the sense of where we are, and it's really rewarding because they feel comfortable in that position, which is great," Corbin said. "They understand the significance of where we are, but it's not a pressure situation for them. It's just that they understand where it is and that we have to take care of our business. They know the sense of urgency ... and that we need to continue to win. The bottom line is we just have to worry about what we can control, how we play, handle our business, and everything else will take care of itself."

ONE GAME AT A TIME: It would be understandable if the Jazz took one eye off Saturday's game and looked ahead to Tuesday's matchup with the Phoenix Suns, which is shaping up as an all-or-nothing, make-or-break showdown with a playoff berth most likely hanging in the balance.

Corbin said the Jazz simply cannot do that.

"We can't afford to," he said Saturday morning. "This is the most important game for us right now and we need to win out. We need to win this game tonight and then see what happens after tonight before we move forward.

"The message to the guys: We've got to make sure we understand the game at hand before we look past anybody. We can't afford to do that."

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com; jody@desnews.com