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Utah Jazz: Critical stage of season starts tonight at OKC

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 6:17 a.m. MDT

Utah's Al Jefferson and Oklahoma's Kevin Durant greet each other Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah's Al Jefferson and Oklahoma's Kevin Durant greet each other Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Way back in the day when that famous sports writer from long ago, Wee Willie Shakespeare, was writing a little story about a guy named Julius Caesar, who once ran the show in Rome, he coined the phrase "Beware the Ides of March."

Shortly after that, Caesar met his gruesome doom, slain by a bunch of guys who, as it turned out, weren't exactly his closest friends after all.

Well, for the Utah Jazz, this month has quickly become one that might be best summed up as "Beware the Yikes of March."

And although their playoff hopes are far from dead, they've definitely taken a serious beating over the last couple of weeks — with just three wins in their last 10 games — and these next 10 games could very well be the "Ides of March" for Utah's postseason aspirations this year.

Entering tonight's road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz find themselves at 33-31 with just 18 games remaining in the regular season.

Their once comfortable cushion over the Los Angeles Lakers, who also took a 33-31 record into Tuesday's game at Orlando, was erased by a frustrating four-game losing streak last week on the road. And now the Jazz find themselves in a three-way dogfight with the Lakers and the Houston Rockets for what will likely be the last two Western Conference playoff spots.

But while a lot of Jazz fans have begun worrying, whining and gnashing their teeth, Utah coach Tyrone Corbin is maintaining an optimistic approach to the task that lies before his team.

"We're in the fight," Corbin said Tuesday. "It's 18 games left in the season; we've got a chance to move up in the playoff picture, and if we take care of our business, we'll be just fine.

"There's no time to panic, there's teams making runs. We didn't play our best basketball on the last road trip, but we're still in the fight. That's the most important thing.

"It's frustrating to lose," he said. "It was four tough losses for us, and it was at a bad time for us. At this time of year to lose four in a row is difficult, but you know what? You learn from it and you move on."

Over the remainder of this month, the NBA schedule-maker certainly didn't do the Jazz any favors.

After tonight's challenging game with the Thunder, who at 47-17 are the No. 2 team in the West and boast the third-best record in the NBA, the Jazz face plenty of opposition to their playoff quest over their next nine games.

Utah has home games against Memphis and New York, which clobbered the Jazz in the Big Apple last weekend, followed by the Texas version of the Bermuda Triangle — road games at Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.

Home games against Philadelphia and Phoenix could help Utah get well again, but then the Jazz finish the month with a road game at Portland and a home game against former Jazzman Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets.

The Lakers' schedule for the remainder of March, meanwhile, features a much easier path with two games against Sacramento and one each with Phoenix, Washington and Minnesota — collectively four of the league's worst teams. And after going 8-2 over their last 10 games, it looks like the under-achieving Lakers have finally figured things out.

The Jazz, then, will have an awfully tough time keeping pace with the team that most Jazz fans love to hate.

Which brings us to Houston. At 34-30, the Rockets are just one game up on Utah in the loss column entering tonight's action, so that March 20 meeting between the two teams is shaping up as a key showdown that could go a long way in determining who goes to the playoffs and who stays home.

But Houston has a huge homestand this month, with seven consecutive home games including contests against highly beatable folks like Phoenix, Minnesota and Cleveland.

Indeed, by the time we get through "the Yikes of March" and move into April, the Jazz might have fallen too far behind the Lakers and Rockets to catch ’em down the regular-season stretch.

Corbin and his crew are admittedly doing a little scoreboard watching as the season winds down to its final month.

"You're aware of it, you're aware of it," he said of sneaking a peak at other teams' scores around the league. "You can't panic. You can't get all wrapped up in what you can't control. You just try to control what you can control, and that's how you play, and take care of your business.

"You can't worry about other teams losing so you can move up or whatever. You just play and tend to what you can handle, and everything else will work itself out."

A year ago, Utah used a late-season surge to climb into the playoffs, securing the No. 8 seed in the West.

Third-year shooting guard Gordon Hayward says this year's team can certainly benefit from that gritty performance, but they need to have a sense of urgency from here on out.

"We're gonna need the rest of these from here on out. It's a real close race," he said. "It'll be interesting the last month here and hopefully we can get some wins.

"We can use that (2012) experience, we did it last year. Hopefully we don't have to win so many games in a row there at the end to get in, and we need to take care of our business now."

Veteran center Al Jefferson, who's been battling a bad ankle, said he's more than willing to play through pain if it means nailing down another playoff spot this year.

"It's sore, but it's pain I can deal with," he said. "I feel like at this time of the year and what we're fighting for, if I can go, I'll go.

"We'll take it one game at a time. But I feel like we've got one more big run in us." Jazz fans are certainly hoping Big Al is right. But, much like they told Caesar just before he got jumped by his buddies, "Beware the Ides of March."

Yikes indeed.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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