Jazz are Half a Game Back With Two Games to Play

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services 

The Utah Jazz waved off early elimination on Saturday with a huge 82-69victory over the Houston Rockets, beating the team that beat the Nuggets the night before. But the transitive property isn't going to be enough for the Jazz to get into the playoffs. Although Utah and Denver have the same number of wins and losses, because Denver owns the tiebreaker, Utah is essentially half a game behind. In order for them to make the postseason, they need to win more of their remaining two games than Denver wins of its remaining two games. A win by Denver and a loss by Utah tonight is all that is needed to clinch the playoffs for the Nuggets and secure an early summer for the Jazz, and though the Jazz face the top-seeded Western Conference team on the road in Minnesota, Denver's task is not much easier, as they host the second-place Kings.

Let's put it in simple terms: there are only three possibilities, based on how many wins Denver can still get -- zero, one, or two. Denver plays Sacramento tonight and San Antonio on Wednesday. Utah plays Minnesota tonight and Phoenix on Wednesday.

1) If Denver wins its remaining two games, Utah is out regardless of how they do.
2) If Denver beats either Sacramento tonight or San Antonio on Wednesday, but not both, then Utah needs to win both of its remaining games to get into the playoffs.
3) If Denver doesn't win either of their remaining games, Utah needs just one win, either over Minnesota tonight or Phoenix on Wednesday, to get into the playoffs.

The last is perhaps the likeliest outcome based on standings. Could some of these tough opposing teams not show up, or call the game in? Could they relax as they know they are headed into the playoffs, and let either the Nuggets or the Jazz beat them?

No. Though this eighth-seed race is exciting, these three opponents -- Minnesota, Sacramento, and San Antonio -- are in a battle of their own for the top seed. All three teams are within one game of each other and the number one seed in the Western Conference. It is not likely any of them will fold.

Sacramento just beat LA. San Antonio just pulled out a victory after falling behind early to the Clippers and are on a nine-game winning streak. Minnesota is on a seven-game winning streak.

Both Utah and Denver are on one-game winning "streaks."

Utah plays their last road game of the regular season tonight. They travel to take on Minnesota, the #1 team in the West. The game starts at 6:00pm MDT and will be broadcast locally on KJZZ and nationally on NBA League Pass.

Phil Miller ofThe Salt Lake Tribune notes: The Jazz pounded Houston on the glass, outrebounding the flatfooted Rockets, 41-28. Jarron Collins (nine), Tom Gugliotta (eight), Kirilenko (eight) and Greg Ostertag (seven) all had at least as many rebounds as Maurice Taylor, who led the Rockets with seven. Against the Jazz, Houston set two opponent records for fewest rebounds in a quarter (two in the second) and fewest rebounds in a half (seven in the first).

Utah can now boast of 19 straight winning seasons and 21 straight years of .500 or better.

Matt Harpring
(knee) andCurtis Borchardt(wrist) are out likely for the rest of the season.


Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle writes: The Jazz on Friday became the latest team to note the Rockets' tendency to battle the officials with as much intensity as the opponent."They were doing a lot of crying, a lot of talking to officials, and we got them out of what they wanted to do," Utah guard Raja Bell said. "You come into a team's building, and you don't think you're getting a fair shake -- whether you are or not -- it starts to play with your mind. You miss some shots, and it snowballs."

Phil Miller ofThe Salt Lake Tribunewrites: The Jazz have been capable of many things during the past 20 years, but surprise was rarely one of them. Pick and roll, Stockton and Malone -- the Jazz were the most known quantity the NBA has ever seen. Well, surprise. This year's Jazz team is full of them. Conventional wisdom lies torn to shreds on the Delta Center floor these days, with the biggest shocker -- a playoff berth for the new-look Jazz -- still there for the taking... But the 42-win-and-counting season hasn't been the only surprise about the Jazz; the season has trashed expectations in a lot of ways. Andrei Kirilenko's rapid development into an All-Star was mildly unexpected, for example, as was Mikki Moore's ability to step out of the NBDL and into a contributing role right away. And there is plenty more. Here are the top five surprises about the Jazz's amazing season.

Steve Luhm ofThe Salt Lake Tribune writes: John Stockton is the NBA's all-time leader in assists and steals, but Andrei Kirilenko has overtaken the future Hall of Famer in one unofficial statistic. According to Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa, Kirilenko has 585 "deflections" this season, including seven in Utah's 82-69 victory over Houston on Saturday at the Delta Center. Stockton held the previous team record of 565 "deflections," which he set during the 1997-98 season. At the time, Stockton was 36. The Jazz coaching staff monitors "deflections" throughout the season. They include knocking away passes, recovering loose balls, taking charges and similar type plays that disrupt an opponent's offense. "Deflections are a barometer of defensive activity," Chiesa said, "and Andrei is one of the best defensive players in the league. He's around the ball the whole game. He's a playmaker on the defensive end, that's what he is, and his defense has been a huge factor in the success we've had." Kirilenko leads the Jazz with 210 blocked shots, 148 steals and 222 offensive rebounds.

Loren Jorgensen ofThe Deseret Morning News writes: Nine. That's how many wins ESPN.com NBA expert Marc Stein predicted the Utah Jazz would earn this 82-game season. Stein and others felt the Jazz had the least-talented team in the league and would likely be one of the all-time worst in history.Some others weren't quite so harsh, but none figured the Jazz would finish above .500 this transitional season and be in the thick of the playoff race down to the wire — especially in the loaded Western Conference. But — thanks in large part to new All-Star Andrei Kirilenko, the do-it-all Russian with the infectious smile — the Jazz have proven the "experts" to be dead wrong. Nine. That's how many games the Jazz won in March alone. Take that, Mr. Stein... [For his enormous role during the Jazz's unlikely playoff race, Kirilenko has been named the Deseret Morning News' Athlete of the Month for March.

Tim Buckley ofThe Deseret Morning News writes: "We have a good shot at the playoffs." Raja Bell's proclamation comes with conviction. But is that aforementioned shot really so good?The curious case of a club doing what no one in their right mind suspected it could — make the postseason — is by no means closed. In fact, no matter what the Jazz do in their final two games of the 2003-04 NBA regular season — tonight at Minnesota, and Wednesday night vs. Phoenix at the Delta Center — they will need some help getting where they want to be. As much as swingman Bell likes his team's chances, after all, not everything is in its control.

Tom McEachin ofThe Ogden Standard-Examiner writes: The Jazz point guards did a good job of frustrating Houston All-Star Steve Francis Saturday night, at least collectively.Individually, it was a different story. Francis finished with more turnovers than points (six to five) and more fouls than assists (four to two), and coach Jeff Van Gundy benched him for the fourth quarter. "I was just doing what I thought would give us the best chance to win," Van Gundy said.

Tom McEachin ofThe Ogden Standard-Examiner writes: In this season of learning, growth and unexpected success, Jerry Sloan says his young Jazz team still hasn't allowed itself to see just how good it can be."Hopefully our players can learn how to play in games and just let it all out," Sloan said. "We haven't really let ourselves go. "I think we've gotten a little cautions at times rather than just play free and easy, and these are some of the things hopefully they can learn from playing in so-called important games." Tonight's game at Minnesota is as important as it gets because the Jazz season, for all practical purposes, could be over in a matter of hours.