Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
MILWAUKEE — Don't look if your stomach gets squeamish at the site of difficult schedules, but the cushy part of the Utah Jazz's 2012-13 season is over.
Having played 15 of the past 20 games in Salt Lake City — with an All-Star break in between — the Jazz will become reacquainted with hotel lobbies, visitors locker rooms and airplane flights during the home stretch.
Hold on tight.
Regardless of the obstacles ahead, the Jazz, fresh off of a reinvigorating 98-68 blowout win over Charlotte that snapped a three-game losing streak, feel good about their ability to handle the turbulent air and arenas they're bound to face.
"My thought is that we’ve had a good stretch at home here," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "We’ve had some successes, some we didn’t win the games we thought we should win."
Without rehashing the 45-point Houston hammering or back-to-back home setbacks last weeks (oops), Utah went 12-8 in that friendly part of the schedule and now has eight of 11 on the road.
"I think that we should have a better understanding of what it takes to win on the road along with a better sense of urgency of the position we’re in now," Corbin said. "We’re fighting for playoff position. I feel good about it. I feel good about this group growing together and understanding the importance of taking care of each and every game."
As Corbin pointed out, the Jazz know they could have improved their spot in the West — or solidified a postseason berth — had they seized their home-heavy opportunity or not stumbled on the road to the likes of Portand and Sacramento.
But the Jazz coach isn't wasting energy worrying about it.
Utah (32-27) is only a half-game out of sixth but 5 1/2 games behind fifth-place Denver (38-22). On the other end, the Jazz are one game ahead of Houston (33-28) and were three (four with tiebreaker) in front of the surging Lakers before their late Sunday game.
"We’ve actually weathered the storm. We haven’t moved up, but we haven’t lost any ground," Corbin said. "Everybody's kind of stayed in that same position they had before.
"It’s this time of year, man. Things happen. We’ve got guys in and out of the lineup like we’ve been dealing with all year long, but the guys are playing hard."
The Jazz play three playoff-bound teams on this weeklong Eastern Conference trek, beginning tonight against Milwaukee (29-28). Utah then goes to an improved Cleveland (20-39) on Wednesday before a tough Friday-Saturday pairing against Chicago (34-25) and New York (35-21).
Corbin smiled while contemplating the challenge.
"It’s going to be a good trip for us. It’s a great measuring stick to see where we are," he said. "We need to play better on the road. We’re going against four great opponents, starting with Milwaukee (tonight) on their home floor. They're going to be tough, but we should be up for the task."
The big question is whether or not the Jazz will be at full strength.
Both starting big men, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, tested their sprained left ankles at Sunday's practice in hopes of getting back into game form by tonight after missing Friday's win.
Millsap hadn't attempted to do lateral movement required for playing defense from the time he sprained his ankle Monday night through Sunday's practice. The durable power forward even missed two games — it was that bad. He arrived early to practice Sunday to put up some shots.
"Eventually," Millsap said, "I’m just going to have to play through a little pain. I know that."
Big Al, who was sporting a walking boot in the aftermath of Wednesday's injury, wasn't available for an interview Sunday, but Corbin said the center is "feeling a little better." Jefferson missed just his second game of the season Friday, paving way for Enes Kanter's monster outing.
They will be game-time decisions.
Corbin is cautiously optimistic Jefferson will be back in the lineup soon. It depends on how well he responds to ongoing treatment.
"(We'll) look at him," Corbin said, "and get a good grasp if it’s better for him to play or better for him not to play, so we don’t risk him getting injured any further."
Utah was able to crush Charlotte on Friday with a bevy of big performances from backups, led by Kanter's stellar 23-point, 22-rebound night.
But that was against the worst team in the NBA.
Can the Jazz and their youngsters duplicate that against stiffer competition?
They hope to not find out.
"It’s going to take a collective effort," Millsap said. "We know that we’ve struggled on the road throughout the year, so we know it’s going to have to be a grind. The next four games are going to be pretty important for us."
"We’re getting ready to go on the road now, so we’ve got to make sure we’re ready," Corbin added. "Hopefully, we get guys back on the floor and take care of our business on the road."
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