That's the message the Jazz sent Thursday, when they beat the Trail Blazers 97-88 in a late-starting, TNT-televised game at sold-out EnergySolutions Arena.
It is only December and may have been just game No. 24 for Utah, granted, in a long 82-game NBA season.
Yet it also was an opportunity seized for making it known that even with starting point guard Deron Williams hobbled by an ankle sprain early in the season and All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer still sidelined by a knee injury, the Jazz are not about to concede the Northwest Division and its automatic playoff berth to either the Nuggets or the Blazers.
"Coach (Jerry Sloan) always preaches to us about how teams in our division we have to win 'em, and how they're tough games," starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer said after the Jazz beat Portland for the second time this season. "So, we knew it was an important."
The Jazz won it behind 10 rebounds and a season-high 27 points from starting center Mehmet Okur, who also hit the game-winner with 1.7 seconds to go when they won at Minnesota on Tuesday.
Utah two-time defending Northwest champs took control early in the second quarter and held service throughout the second half, pulling it even with Portland at 15-9 and within a game of division-leading Denver.
"I thought our guys played really hard," Sloan said. "Obviously (Portland) is a very talented team, and they do a lot of things well, and they're really difficult to play against."
But, he added, "tonight we played a little harder than we have been, and gave ourselves a chance to win the ballgame."
The Jazz playing their 12th straight game sans Boozer have won two straight and six of their last nine.
They're also 7-5 without Boozer, who remains out with a strained left quadriceps tendon.
But he wasn't missed Thursday nearly as much as he has been in recent past games.
That's because with 21 points in the first half alone from Okur, Utah went into the break up by 11 at 57-46.
The Jazz, sparked largely by bench players, gained their separation with a 10-0 run late in the opening quarter and early in the second.
Utah snapped a 27-27 tie behind two free throws from Williams, a Williams-fed Andrei Kirilenko dunk, a Kyle Korver jumper and two Matt Harpring free throws.
Williams shot just 2-of-7 from the field but had eight points and seven assists while logging 20 minutes in the half.
The Jazz went into the fourth quarter up 78-66, with Brewer scoring eight, starting small forward C.J. Miles adding seven points and replacement-starter Paul Millsap pulling down seven rebounds in a 21-20 third.
Williams wound up with a 14-point, 11-assist double-double as Portland couldn't get any closer than within seven in the final minute.
And Millsap finished with 17 points and 12 boards despite playing again with a wrap on his left thumb, which was surgically repaired in the offseason and which he said he recently sprained.
It marked his 10th straight double-double in his 11th game starting in place of Boozer, who said Thursday he wasn't sure if he'd be good to go when the Jazz play host to Orlando on Saturday night.
NOTES: If it wasn't for the fact Kyrylo Fesenko recently strained his lower back, the sparingly used Ukrainian center would be assigned to the Utah Flash, the Jazz's Orem-based NBA Development League affiliate. "I would send him down there right now," Sloan said Thursday, "but his back's bothering him, and I don't want put him down there where he's going to be in a position (to) not ... play." ... Fesenko still could join the Flash, though, before the Jazz depart Sunday for their annual pre-Christmas trip. "We'll see what happens before the week's over," Sloan said. ... Fesenko again joined Boozer and out-long-term big man Jarron Collins (elbow) on the inactive list Thursday.
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