SALT LAKE CITY — With just four games remaining on the regular-season schedule, Utah Jazz guard Mo Williams summed up the current playoff situation in two words: a challenge.
“And we should embrace it,” the veteran player said before practice Monday morning.
“Usually, you’re at the point where you’re in the playoffs or out,” Williams added. “You’re either resting and the games don’t mean much — you’re just trying to keep rhythm. Or you’re already out and thinking about summertime.”
This season, however, every game matters, including the one Tuesday against one of the best teams in the West.
Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder (56-21) return to town one game behind San Antonio for the top spot in the Western Conference standings. They're looking to close that gap.
“They’re still in the fight to try and have the best record in the West,” said Utah Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin, “so they’re going to come in here with their guns going.”
The Jazz are 1-2 against Oklahoma City this season, and all three games were decided by double-digit margins — a 12-point loss in November, a 15-point win in February, and a 23-point loss last month. Fortunately, the Jazz are playing this critical game at EnergySolutions Arena, where they have already beat the Thunder this season and where the home crowd can aide in keeping the momentum toward the team’s ultimate goal.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Corbin said. “We’re in a good position now. We worked our way back into a (playoff) spot and have a half-game lead now with the tiebreaker (over the Los Angeles Lakers). But we have four games and they’re going to all be tough games, so we’ve got to make sure we stay with our foot on the pedal.”
What do the Jazz do to maintain that speed against a team like Oklahoma City?
“Whatever it takes to win,” said Williams. “We’re playing against a good team, so we expect a good game. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to win.”
The 6-foot-1 guard, who hit a gigantic 27-foot 3-pointer to secure a Jazz victory at Golden State on Sunday, added that the team is taking the last week of the season one contest at a time.
“This is a great time of year,” he said. “We’re playing for all the marbles and each game counts.”
FAVORS SEIZING OPPORTUNITY: When big man Enes Kanter was sidelined with a dislocated shoulder, it opened the door for Derrick Favors to spend more time on the floor — and he has responded.
The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 11.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in the seven contests since Kanter was injured. That is more than two points and two boards better than his season averages of 9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds.
“The one main, huge thing for us is the defensive presence that he creates,” Corbin said, noting the importance of the play where Favors blocked the shot of the Warriors’ Draymond Green late in the game Sunday.
“The blocked shot was great,” Corbin said, “but if you look back at the first part of the play where he showed out on the pick-and-roll, he actually jumped out and was able to recover back to meet the guy at the rim to block the shot.”
Both Corbin and Williams agreed that the 21-year-old has shown a lot of growth in the past two seasons — on and off the court.
“He’s getting to the point where he’s trying to turn the corner,” Williams said. “He’s doing a lot of great things for us down the stretch.”
INJURY UPDATE: Corbin said guard Alec Burks was still “a little hobbly” on his sprained left ankle, and the shooting guard did not practice Monday to rehabilitate the injury. Small forward Marvin Williams was sent home from practice with a stomach bug, and Kanter was in New York seeing doctors for his dislocated shoulder.
Guard Jamaal Tinsley was still feeling the effects of a bruised lower back, which he suffered Friday against New Orleans, but did practice Monday. Rookie guard Kevin Murphy, who had been dealing with a skin infection, also returned to practice.
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org