Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA's postseason doesn't officially begin until mid-April.
Unofficially, consider it March Madness for the Utah Jazz.
Though it's not quite do-or-die time, the Jazz don't have many mulligans left if the perennial playoff club hopes to keep its four-year postseason streak alive.
"Every game against everybody right now is big for us," Jazz coach Ty Corbin conceded.
Currently, Utah (32-29) finds itself in the No. 10 spot — 1 1/2 games behind a surging Memphis (34-28) team that holds the last playoff spot and is coming off of a nice win over NBA-leading San Antonio.
The fact that the Jazz are on the outside looking in for a playoff spot adds an element of pressure tonight against the Denver Nuggets for the struggling Utah squad that has lost 16 of 21 games overall and has fallen six straight times at home.
"It's a tough fight," Corbin said. "Teams that are behind us and close to us in front of us are playing well, so we've got to pick it up and win ballgames, both at home and on the road."
While Utah has fallen too far to realistically hope for a homecourt seed — No. 4 Oklahoma City is 5 1/2 games ahead — finishing as high as fifth is well within the Jazz's reach.
They could move a little closer in that direction with a win in tonight's late TNT-televised game against the current No. 5 team, Denver. The Nuggets (35-26) are three games ahead of Utah, which, by the way, is only 1 1/2 games ahead of No. 11 Houston (31-31).
All of which should make for an intriguing final quarter of the regular season.
"Right now we're out of the playoff race. We're close. We're in striking distance to getting back in and maybe even moving up to a higher position," Corbin said, "but we've got to win games to get back into the fight as far as being one of eight."
Honestly, new Jazz point guard Devin Harris is happy to even be in the playoff picture this late in the season — something he didn't experience during his three previous full seasons in New Jersey.
"I'm excited. They (fans) shouldn't panic," Harris said. "The thing about the West is a few wins can change a whole lot in the standings, and it's been like that the last couple of years. We just need to settle down and execute a little bit more and just come out and play well."
Harris said that the Jazz definitely need to focus on finishing games stronger, a deficiency that cost them in recent losses to Detroit and Boston. Defensive breakdowns have especially hurt them, he added.
"We've got to be more sound," he said, "be a little more active and try to limit penetration."
The Jazz's playoff predicament is posted in the team's locker room, and it remains a top priority for the team to extend its season as long as possible.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs, so it's definitely something we're conscious of and we're working towards," Jazz guard Raja Bell said. "But to reach that goal, there are some things that we have to worry about in the present — and that's getting better and finding our chemistry with the new group and shoring up some things defensively."
Added Bell: "If we get those things tightened, then it gives us the best chance of making the playoffs."
Bell won't go so far as saying the Jazz will face a win-or-go-home situation in each of the next 21 contests, but it's almost to that point.
"It becomes critical to come out every night and to give your best performance," Bell said. "Because you're hoping you can continue to win and build up a head of steam and then you'll get a couple of slips from other teams, so there are no nights to be taken off now."
Especially not against a rival like Denver, a new-look team the Jazz have split with so far this season in two meetings.
"It's an important game for us," Harris said, "especially protecting our home floor and coming out with a better effort and trying to finish some of these guys."
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