CHICAGO — The Utah Jazz are on a cross-country losing tour, having been defeated in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee and Cleveland in five of their past six games over the last two weeks.
The Lakers are nipping at their stumbling heels.
Their playoff status is becoming less of a certainty by the day.
Adding to the precariousness of their position, the Jazz's next two road opponents — Chicago (34-27) and New York (37-21) — are in the top six of the Eastern Conference standings.
With panic settling in on Jazzland like a nasty inversion, Utah (32-29) is holding onto a handful of hope that getting their group back together will help them break through their untimely funk.
Center Al Jefferson expects to be back in action Friday against the Bulls, which will mark the first time he's played in four games after being sidelined with a sprained left ankle.
"I'm feeling good," Big Al said Thursday after the team practiced at the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago. "I had a good practice today, be ready to go tomorrow."
If that indeed happens, it will be the first time Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin has had all of his non-Raja Bell roster members available for action since Dec. 22.
"I think it will be a great benefit for us. It will give us a lot more pieces to use at different times. Now we just need to get the guys to feel comfortable with each other back on the floor in game situations," Corbin said. "We'll need some work together, but it's exciting to have everybody back."
Mo Williams returned Wednesday after missing 32 games with his right thumb injury, and just missed being the hero when his go-ahead layup rolled off the rim with five seconds remaining in an eventual 104-101 loss at Cleveland.
"It was good. I ain't seen him out playing for so long," Jefferson said. With a chuckle, he added, "He's been to the Bahamas. He's been on vacation."
So where's Jefferson been the past three games? "Hawaii," he joked.
He's actually been in a miserable mental state. He prides himself in not missing games, something he's rarely done in three seasons with the Jazz.
"It (stinks), man. I felt useless. My attitude was messed up. I didn't really feel like talking to nobody," he said. "I just go into this dark place, because if you ain't playing basketball I love it, and if you ain't playing due to injuries or whatever the situation is, it just takes a lot out of me."
Not to mention taking the Jazz's leading scorer away from the team, which has dealt with a wide variety of injuries over the past three months, including Williams' long absence, a 10-game shoulder injury for Gordon Hayward and two missed games by Paul Millsap for a sprained ankle.
Backup point guard Earl Watson, who filled Williams' void along with Jamaal Tinsley and Alec Burks, believes outsiders are underestimating the significance of the Jazz reuniting in time for the final playoff push.
"I think it's big. I don't think anyone (in this playoff race) could afford to lose their point guard and still be in the race," Watson said. "Our team did a great job of still staying in and people always talk about how either we're sliding or we're barely gaining momentum, but we don’t have our full team. No one gives us credit for that."
Not that others' opinions matter, but the skeptics might be in for a surprise as far as Watson's concerned.
"It's going to be a positive to see everyone come back and be healthy going down the stretch," he said. "The timing couldn't be more perfect. I'd rather that happen early than have it happen late."
With Williams and Jefferson back in the mix, Corbin said he'll keep DeMarre Carroll in the starting small forward position, while Randy Foye and Millsap will round out the first five.
The bad news is that the Jazz went 0-3 with this group starting together earlier in the season.
The good news, though, is that the key players' time away allowed for opportunities and experience for the likes of Burks, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Carroll since then.
Corbin said he's looking forward to having this unit play together now for two reasons: "Energy. Speed."
As for the playoff chase, Corbin knows the Lakers rallied to beat the Hornets after trailing by 25 on Wednesday, and notices what Houston and Golden State do ahead of the Jazz, too.
But that's not his biggest concern.
"We pay attention to it, but we've got to worry about what we're doing. If we handle our business, we'll be fine," Corbin said. "We let a couple slip away here. We've got two more here on this trip. We've got to concentrate on Chicago, and we'll go from there."
To New York.
And, if you ask the Jazz, eventually to the playoffs.
"It shows the depth of our team. It show how powerful we can be," said Watson, referring to the Jazz's 18-14 record without Williams in the rotation. "Everyone's roles go back to normal. I think it will make us that (much) better and that much more of a threat."
Big Al said he doesn't listen to the media because they've counted the Jazz out since the beginning of the season. He remains confident.
"We've got a full team back for the first time in 30-something games, so that's a plus," Jefferson said. "We've got two tough games coming up that we need to win. We let two tough ones get away, so we've got to bounce back and try to finish 2-2 on the trip."
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