SALT LAKE CITY — Despite their ominous playoff position — on the outside looking in by multiple games — the Utah Jazz aren't eliminated from the postseason.
"By no stretch of the imagination," Tyrone Corbin insisted Saturday night.
But it doesn't take much imagining to see the writing on the standings: The Jazz have almost no margin of error remaining after losing seven of their last 11 games.
Utah's best bet to get back into the playoff race is to win out and have Houston and/or Denver go 4-3 or worse down the stretch.
Technically, the Jazz (31-30) could still leapfrog tonight's opponent, but Dallas already has the tiebreaker so the Mavericks would have to end 1-4 or 0-5 while the Jazz finish 5-0 for that big hop to happen.
Utah also has to hope Phoenix (31-29) stumbles while it tries to play catch-up.
The prevailing attitude in the locker room after Saturday's 103-98 setback at Memphis was that the Jazz remain determined.
"It's all we can do now. Just make sure we continue to work hard," Corbin said. "I don't question these guys' character. I know they're going to fight and lay everything they have on the line out there. We'll see where it goes."
The Jazz wouldn't admit it, but they looked like a team running on an empty tank at the end of that Memphis loss. Not only was it their third road game in four nights, but an unfortunate string of injuries has taken a toll on the team's depth and put an even greater load on key players still able to go.
Corbin even acknowledged that the team is missing the presence of sidelined veterans Raja Bell, Josh Howard, Earl Watson and C.J. Miles. At this time of year in pressure-packed games and playoff spots on the line, the contributions of seasoned players can be invaluable.
"The veterans have been through it a little bit," Corbin said, "and the young guys are learning on the fly."
In a way, Corbin likes that challenge. As a still-new head coach, he's also becoming battle-tested.
"We're a young group together. We're learning as a group. We're learning individually," Corbin said. "The guys are playing hard. We made some mistakes in key situations, but we're working our way through it."
In the long run, Corbin believes the Jazz will be better off because of the struggles — and successes — they've gone through together this season.
Some fans would prefer if the team finished out of the playoffs so it can keep its first-round pick, which will go to Minnesota from the Al Jefferson trade if it's not a lottery selection.
But the Jazz want to continue to keep the culture of winning and playoff participation that has been a part of the franchise's fabric since the 1980s.
"Every game is an intense game because it means a great deal to us to our livelihood where we can stay in the playoff race or we fall one behind," Corbin said. "We want to continue to make sure we learn from it and work our way through it. That's the great thing about it — you get to learn and grow while you're going through this."
Even while disappointed from losing, Jazz players stayed hopeful about possibly returning to the playoffs after missing out last year.
"I think we're still in it. There's five games left. We can. You never know what can happen. We've got to keep our head up," Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward said. "We've got three at home to finish it off. We've got another one at home (tonight) and go to Portland for our last road game. So we're still definitely in this thing."
Devin Harris said the team has to refocus pronto. Paul Millsap added that Utah has to commit to playing a full 48 minutes.
"We still think we've got a chance. We're not counting ourselves out," Millsap said. "We'll never do that. The mood in the locker room is still there. Everybody still believe. We've just got to get out there and just do it."
That's easier said than done considering the defending NBA champions have beaten the Jazz seven straight times, including once in Utah this season.
Plus, aside from the four aforementioned injuries, the Jazz are also unsure whether new starter DeMarre Carroll (mild concussion) will be able to play. Jeremy Evans has been out three games with a sprained right ankle, and Paul Millsap (wrist) and Gordon Hayward (thigh) are playing through injuries.
But Millsap said the Jazz "aren't going to use any type of excuses" after Saturday's loss, and they'll take that same must-win-despite-adversity approach into tonight's tilt.
Bottom line, he added, "Our best bet is to win out and hopefully it works itself out."
Mavs at Jazz
Tonight, 7 p.m.
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