SALT LAKE CITY — In two previous games this week, the Jazz showed they are still deep in the race for one of the final playoff spots. They narrowly lost to Portland, but bounced back on Tuesday to beat Houston in overtime.

Thursday at Vivint Arena, they faced something far more imposing: the top end of the food chain. Note to Utah fans: Don’t cancel any June vacation plans yet.

For the 16th time in the last 20 pairings against San Antonio, the Jazz lost. Old Spurs don’t die, they just reboot.

Still, there was progress in their 96-78 loss.

At least this time it wasn’t an early avalanche.

“I mean, that team is a team,” said Sacramento coach George Karl after the Kings fell to the Spurs on Wednesday.

So the Jazz got the chance to measure themselves for the third time this season against the Spurs, who have a franchise-best 49-9 record. The first two times the Jazz and Spurs met, it was as one-sided as a firing squad. San Antonio won by 25 and 37.

This one got away late, but it wasn’t like the previous meetings.

After the win over Houston Tuesday, it was hard not to buy at least some of the Jazz optimism. Last week the Jazz added guard Shelvin Mack from Atlanta and only had to give away a second-round draft pick. But instead of being a non-factor, Mack elated Jazz fans with his start. In his first game in Utah, he scored 16 points in 24 minutes. Two nights later, his 17 points helped the Jazz overcome Houston. Mack showed up and immediately became a starter.

He began Thursday’s game making three of his first four shots.

“I felt like he’d have the understanding and smarts that would help us, but you see him talking to (Derrick) Favors during a timeout and I think he’s been more comfortable at the early stage than I thought he’d be,” coach Quin Snyder said before Thursday’s game.

It didn’t hurt that Favors was thriving on Thursday, logging 25 points.

So even with the loss, general manager Dennis Lindsey is looking smart. He stole Rodney Hood in the 2014 draft, pulled Tervor Booker out of a hat and talked Denver out of keeping Rudy Gobert. And he patiently waited to see Favors and Gordon Hayward grow up.

It seems a healthy Jazz team is a dangerous one. Like Ben Stiller with a good script, they can surprise you. They entered Thursday’s game with a 28-28 record and holding down the eighth and final playoff spot, a half-game ahead of the Rockets. With Memphis center Marc Gasol out for the season, space could clear quickly for the postseason.

But on Thursday, it wasn’t about fighting for eighth place. It was about measuring themselves against the best. The Spurs did what they always do.

They took the Jazz to school, extending the lead late in the game.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was in midseason form, chiding a reporter for asking a question that he deemed “a waste of time” and declining to comment on Rodney Hood, saying, “He’s not on my team, is he?”

Hayward missed four of his first five shots, while Leonard made him look bad, outscoring him 15-4 in the first half. The Spurs’ passing and positioning took charge.

That was offset nicely by Favors’ domination of LaMarcus Aldridge.

But a recurring problem — allowing offensive rebounds — hurt the Jazz, as they were victimized eight times in the first 24 minutes.

Halftime entertainment included a man balancing a table, and later a ladder, on his chin.

That’s only half as hard as beating the Spurs.

In the second half, the Spurs gradually pulled away, same as always, using great passing, stifling defense and sharing the ball. Soon the lead was 20.

Still, the Jazz are drawing closer to a good team than a bad one.

Conversely, the Spurs, a team that through the years openly admitted to have patterned itself after the 1990s Jazz is now a legendary franchise.

Now the Jazz are trying to double back.

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