SALT LAKE CITY — It isn't LeBron James vs. The State of Ohio and Millions Others Who Thought "The Decision" Was Ridiculous.
But the Dallas Mavericks vs. the Utah Jazz match-up tonight at EnergySolutions Arena is almost as big as the 21st game of the regular season — the 82-game looooong regular season, mind you — can possibly be.
"It's going to be a good game," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "There's going to be some hype surrounding it, not as much as the game (Thursday), but it should be a fun game to be a part of."
Added Jazz center Al Jefferson, who didn't exactly get big-time bouts while with Minnesota: "I know it's going to be a battle, (on) ESPN. So it's going to be fun to play."
It's easy to see why they feel that way.
Not only is the clash of Western Conference powers a featured national TV game, but both teams enter the late 8:30 p.m. contest on seven-game winning streaks.
The 15-5 Jazz have as many wins as anybody in the NBA (along with the 15-3 Spurs). The 14-4 Mavericks have the league's second-best winning percentage (.778).
The hot squads are also playing well on both ends of the court.
Utah has averaged 104.6 points and limited opponents to 90.4 points during its streak. Dallas has outscored its foes 101-92.3 over the same stretch.
"It's a challenge for us to go out there and play this game (tonight) and see where we're at," Jazz power forward Paul Millsap said. "Hopefully, we can win this game and get into second place."
The atmosphere at ESA, where the Jazz have returned their winning ways with five home victories in a row, is likely to be at a fever pitch — not quite as crazy as James' homecoming but somewhere in the neighborhood of last week's loud and rowdy Lakers' game.
After all, some avid Jazz fans, who don't hold Dallas in the highest of regards due to intense battles over the years, might remind you that you can't spell Dirk Nowitzki or Mark Cuban without including four-letter words (that'd be Dirk and Mark, of course).
One of those guys certainly has the Jazz's attention right now. Hint: That'd be the German who's mixed it up with Andrei Kirilenko a time or two and the one who scored 29 points to lead the Mavericks to a frantic comeback victory over Utah last season.
You might recall, too, that those 29 points were merely the ones Nowitzki scored in the fourth quarter of the 27-point turnaround game in which he finished scoring 40 and the Mavericks won, 96-85.
"We just haven't been able to guard Nowitzki," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "Nobody's guarded him since he's been playing, except when he was young. He's a great player. He's got a tremendous shot. He can put the ball on the floor, shoot sideways, off balance, all that stuff."
During Dallas' strong start, the 7-footer has averaged 24.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Millsap said the Jazz will try to limit Dirk's touches and to mix up defensive looks.
"We know the offense runs through him," Millsap said. "So we're going to have to do a good job of guarding him from getting open looks. If we do that and rebound the basketball, we should be fine."
Keying on Nowitzki, however, is a strategy that risks giving more opportunities to dangerous offensive threats like Jason Terry and Caron Butler.
But the Jazz are aware this is a pick-your-poison case.
"They have so many weapons this year," Williams said. "(And) they're a lot tougher defensively."
The Mavericks will also have their struggles in containing the Jazz, who are operating a high-octane offense thanks to Williams' revved-up play.
Utah's All-Star point guard, who'll be pitted against childhood hero Jason Kidd, has averaged 21.6 points on 62 percent shooting and 11.1 assists in the past five games.
During that same period, the Jazz have averaged 107 points while hitting at least 109 points in three straight.
Here's one unsettling stat for Jazz faithful, though. While Utah has been known to put a Comeback Curse on teams (see the slumping Lakers and Blazers, and even the Heat), the Mavericks have been Streak Snappers.
Dallas has ended four lengthy winning streaks already this season against San Antonio (12 games), New Orleans (eight), Boston (five) and Oklahoma City (five).
Either the Jazz or Mavs will exit ESA with an eight-game winning streak sometime late tonight. The other will leave as a loser for the first time in two weeks.
All of which sets the stage for a showdown in Salt Lake City — minus most of the vitriol of that Cleveland clash.
"It's one of those games you've got to step your level of play up as a team," Millsap said. "As a whole we're going to have to step it up a notch to beat a very good basketball team."
You've heard of Christmas in July?
Consider this the NBA's version of playoffs in December.
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