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Utah Jazz approach final playoff push as postseason series with strong mental focus

SALT LAKE CITY — As the 2017-18 NBA regular season nears its end, media members and fans have been exposed to all the cliché answers from teams in the playoff picture.

You know the “we’re taking it one game at a time,” “we’re only worried about ourselves” and “we don’t pay attention to the standings.”

Blah, blah, blah …

For those in the postseason hunt, that’s nonsense.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert can attest to that.

“To be honest, I try not to but I’m paying attention,” Gobert said of the Western Conference standings. “We know it’s about us and it doesn’t really matter at this point what other teams do. We’ve just got to take care of business every night and we should be fine.”

After Wednesday night’s heartbreaking last-second loss to the Boston Celtics, Utah (42-33) remains planted in the eighth and final spot, but it can’t get comfortable with seven games remaining.

Just one game separates the Jazz from the fifth seed, and the Los Angeles Clippers remain on their tail at No. 9, also one game behind.

The Western Conference playoff race remains as tight as it's ever been, and won’t likely be sorted out until the tail end.

FiveThirtyEight still projects the Jazz to make the playoffs with an 89 percent chance, but the inexperienced roster still must seal the deal.

Sure, Utah reached the second round of last year’s postseason, but this is a completely different roster with rookie guard Donovan Mitchell still learning how to close games in pressure moments.

Starting floor general Ricky Rubio has never experienced the playoffs throughout his entire career, let alone to win more than 40 games. This is an entirely new experience for him, but he’s well aware that every game is equally important at this point of the season.

“Every game you just move up or down the standings so quickly that we have to be ready and not think about that but knowing that every game matters,” Rubio said. “If you watch it every day and pay attention every day, it’ll get in your mind and you get mentally fatigued.

“So if you know that, you can check it and have fun with it because it’s a fun time of year, but at the end of the day you come down to today, that you have to win the game today,” he added.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder sees this final playoff push as an educational experience for the new players on the team and also the returning guys in new roles such as Joe Ingles. Snyder is challenging his players and coaching staff to continue to get better each day.

The Jazz will host Memphis Friday, then travel to Minnesota Sunday, followed by two home games versus the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers on April 3 and April 5, before hitting the road to face the Lakers again on April 8, then returning home to play Golden State on April 10 and finally concluding the regular season in Portland on April 11.

Buckle up. Things could get interesting.

“We need to make sure we’re playing well and most of the time if you play well you’re going to get a pretty good result or at least have a chance to,” Snyder said. “This playoff race in some respects is a little bit like a playoff series.

“There’s obviously some significant differences, but as far as your focus having to be so consistent and so intense.”