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Utah Jazz keep playoff hopes alive with big win in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — Monday was Fan Appreciation Night in Minnesota.

While the home crowd went home disappointed, the Utah Jazz gave their fans 1,200 miles away something to appreciate.

With a 96-80 victory, Utah kept its playoff hopes alive.

"Biggest game of the year is the next game. We put ourselves in the position to have a chance and that's all we can do," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Enjoy this victory tonight. … But the work is on Wednesday, so we'll be ready to go."

After 6 1/2 months together and 81 games, the Jazz's future hinges on the final night of the 2012-13 regular season.

Now the Jazz only need two things to happen to earn a postseason berth that night.

First, Utah (43-38) must win in Memphis.

Second, the Jazz have to hope Houston can knock off the Lakers (44-37) in Los Angeles after their game ends and they're airborne en route to Salt Lake City.

If both things go Utah's way, the Jazz, who own the playoff tiebreaker with L.A., will prepare for their first-round foe Thursday.

If Utah loses or the Lakers win, Thursday will turn into the most dreaded day of the season — Locker Cleanout Day.

"We will see what we can do," Jazz guard Randy Foye said. "We will go out there and play as hard as we can and see what happens. The first thing we had to do was give ourselves a chance and get the win tonight."

The Jazz didn't mess around much in getting that done.

Three nights after scraping and clawing past the T-Wolves in Utah on Friday, the Jazz spotted Minnesota an early two-point lead.

The desperate visitors, knowing a loss equaled elimination, then looked as confident as they have on the road all season by scoring the next 16 points to set a tone of determination for the night.

That Utah team that lost nine straight road games and fell in 12 of 15 games overall awhile back?

Who knows where it went.

This re-energized and unified squad played as poised as ever on the road, going up by as many as 22 points while earning its season-best third-straight victory away from the cozy confines of EnergySolutions Arena.

With their ninth win in 11 games, the Jazz continue to push the more talented Lakers for that final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"Talk about this group of guys, the character that they have," Corbin said. "There was no quit in this group. The guys just continued to work and put ourselves in a position to get back when we were struggling there."

As he did Friday night, Al Jefferson carried the Jazz offensively. Big Al didn't come near to his career-high-tying 40-point night from last weekend, but he scored 22 points Monday to go with eight rebounds and two blocked shots.

Jefferson had one particularly clutch stretch in the third quarter when he hit four straight free throws and hit a short hook shot, turning a shaky three-point Jazz lead into a nine-point cushion.

"We got control of the game and got our mindset ready," Jefferson said. "It was a big game and the only thing we could worry about was taking the pressure off and try to take care of the game and try to win."

That not only sparked the Jazz but seemed to extinguish the will of the T-Wolves, who never got closer than nine points in the fourth quarter.

"He didn't have 40," Corbin said. "But he carried us."

The Jazz coach also credited Jefferson for passing out of double teams, opening up shots for his teammates.

In this must-win matchup, Utah also got strong performances from Mo Williams (15 points, seven assists, four steals), Randy Foye (14 points) and Derrick Favors (12 points).

Defensively, the Jazz clamped down on the short-handed T-Wolves, who played without Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, their two best big men, due to injuries.

Minnesota's shooting (42.7 percent) was as frigid as its winter-like weather, which resulted in the postponement of Sunday's Twins-Mets game due to snow.

"It was good to see," Corbin said, "especially in the second half when they made a little run there and then we were able to get ourselves back together and execute our offense down the stretch and get a little cushion and we could cruise in the game."

That, they certainly did.

The T-Wolves were held to 39 points in the second half, and the Jazz only had 10 turnovers while playing with a calm resolve.

"It's very satisfying. We just came in and did what we was supposed to do," said Jazz forward Paul Millsap, who had eight points and seven rebounds. "The big challenge is going to be the next game in Memphis. Tonight was one of them games we was supposed to win and now we've just got to get one."

And then, of course, hope the Rockets can cool off the red-hot Lakers.