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Utah Jazz dancing the playoff shuffle now

Published: Monday, Jan. 25 2010 12:19 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Playoff positioning in the NBA's Western Conference this season is starting to resemble a mean game of musical chairs.

One day the music starts, and the Utah Jazz are standing in seventh place.

The next day the music stops, and they're on their backsides looking in from the outside while tied for ninth.

On again and, oh look, the Jazz are in sixth place after winning six of seven games.

What makes this competition so intriguing to watch and hard to keep up with is that teams can battle back into the circle after somebody swipes the seat from under them.

And with 11 teams three-or-more games above .500 — and all looking playoff-worthy at times — this contest looks like it might not be settled until the last day of the regular season.

"We're past the halfway mark," Carlos Boozer said, "and now it's time for the race to the finish line."

What really promises to put the wild, wild into the West race is how eight teams — those currently in the Nos. 4 through 11 spots — are all within three games of each other.

Two nearly deadlocked contestants will go at it tonight at EnergySolutions Arena. The surging Jazz are 25-18 and are just percentage points ahead of the slipping Suns (26-19). That adds all the more excitement to a game that also has an enticing point guard showdown between Deron Williams and Steve Nash.

"It should be a fun game to a part of, a game we should get up for," Williams said. "With the way it's going right now, every game is important — especially when you're playing against the teams you're fighting against."

The winner moves closer to No. 4 Portland (27-18) and No. 5 San Antonio (25-17). The loser dips into the territory of on-the-bubble teams Houston (24-19), Memphis (23-19), Oklahoma City (24-20) and New Orleans (23-20).

Which is why consistency in the West's standings is about as unlikely as a predictable weather forecast along the Wasatch Front.

Check it in 15 minutes, and it'll change. To be comfortable, you might need an umbrella instead of sunglasses, not to mention a five-game winning streak.

"It's really interesting," Andrei Kirilenko said. "I don't remember any season with so many teams really in the playoff opportunity. It's going to be pretty interesting to finish the season."

Even the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers (33-11), Denver (29-14) and Dallas (29-15) haven't separated themselves from the pack yet.

That makes for a fun show — for observers, at least.

Jerry Sloan, for one, doesn't check standings. No thanks.

"That'll drive ya crazy," the Jazz coach said.

"I worry about these guys," he added. "I've got my hands full trying to do that."

Kyle Korver is a "once-a-week standings watcher," admitting it's too volatile to make sense of now.

"It's a crazy year," he said.

Unlike some on the team, Boozer is a standings savant. He gets a kick out of watching all the jostling. He made sure to find out after Saturday's blowout win over New Jersey where the Jazz stood, and he's excited about upcoming games against the likes of Phoenix, Portland (twice), Denver and Dallas.

"Every game that we play right now is critical whether it's in the West, East, whatever," Boozer said. "Because if you lose you could drop out of the playoffs and if you win you can move up."

Kirilenko claims it's especially important to fare well in the eight games before the mid-February All-Star break.

"If you play good," he said, "you kind of set you up for the end of the season (race), which is going to be very important."

Sloan is a firm believer that the Jazz shouldn't get caught up in the standings shuffle.

"Just go win games," he said. "You start looking back over your shoulder and start wondering what the other teams are gonna do, you forget to do your job."

And suddenly the music stops, and your seat is on the floor again.

e-mail: jody@desnews.com

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