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Utah Jazz are in a playoff position even after this season's wild ride

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 9:00 a.m. MDT

Utah's Derrick Favors pushes on Markieff Morris as the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns play Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Energy Solutions arena. Utah wins 103-88. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah's Derrick Favors pushes on Markieff Morris as the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns play Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Energy Solutions arena. Utah wins 103-88. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — If you review the Utah Jazz's schedule for the 2012-13 season, their current stretch of success only makes sense.

Since this basketball year began, they've made a habit of answering cold spells with hot streaks, balancing wins with losses, and straddling the fence of mediocrity.

They're good for a while, great for a night or two, lousy for a week or so. Rinse, win, lose, win, lose, repeat.

Go figure that they'd win four in a row after losing four straight.

Surprising? Of course not.

As they say, it is what it is.

They are who they are.

Or, is it possible that this group has turned a corner, and they no longer are who they were? Maybe, just maybe, it isn't what it was?

Utah Jazz guard Mo Williams, left, holds off Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews while dribbling during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 29, 2013.  Williams led the Jazz in scoring with 28 points as they beat the Trail Blazers 105-95. (Associated Press) Utah Jazz guard Mo Williams, left, holds off Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews while dribbling during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 29, 2013. Williams led the Jazz in scoring with 28 points as they beat the Trail Blazers 105-95. (Associated Press)

Could that tough-luck Texas trip have changed their identity?

After all, the Jazz have looked awfully clutch in crunch time as of late. Even on the road. Even against a bona fide playoff team. And even against two struggling squads they were supposed to beat and still did.

"It's amazing how things change so quickly, right?" Jazz guard Randy Foye said after hitting eight 3-pointers and scoring 26 in the 116-107 win over Brooklyn. "I think we just stayed together. We weathered the storm."

Foye points back to that overtime loss in San Antonio as the watershed moment.

"Even though we lost, that set the tone for us," he said. "This is a great time to have confidence right now."

And it added another thrilling twist in this roller coaster season.

Utah Jazz's Al Jefferson, left, drives past Brooklyn Nets' Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press) Utah Jazz's Al Jefferson, left, drives past Brooklyn Nets' Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Associated Press)

But even when many people wrote their playoff hopes off and penciled in the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks — some still might — the Jazz maintained a positive attitude. They weren't done trying to reach the summit even while they were tumbling down the mountainside.

"If you listen to all the talk and the naysayers and the people counting you out and you let that get into your head, it can affect you," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "These guys have proven this is a high character group of guys. They push each other. They support each other. They understand where we are and they always bounce back."

Corbin's third season as the Jazz's coach offers myriad examples of that "bouncebackability."

Utah responded to its first road trip of the season — three straight losses — by winning three of four games.

Philadelphia 76ers' Jeremy Pargo (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz's Randy Foye (8) defends in the first half during an NBA basketball game Monday, March 25, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press) Philadelphia 76ers' Jeremy Pargo (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz's Randy Foye (8) defends in the first half during an NBA basketball game Monday, March 25, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Associated Press)

They won five of six after back-to-back stumbles in Boston and Philadelphia.

Their first four-game winning streak came after a three-game losing streak.

Their late December slide (2-7) paved way for an 11-4 stretch in January.

And before losing 11 of 14 after the All-Star break, you guessed it: The Jazz put together three straight victories.

Whether the credit and/or blame goes to coaching, veterans, youth, the front office, chemistry or confidence, the Jazz have been more consistently inconsistent than Wasatch Front weather patterns.

Yet here they are. Two-and-a-half weeks remain in the season, and the Jazz are in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They're tied at 38-36 with the Lakers, but they own the tiebreaker, having won the season series 2-1. Utah also has that advantage over Dallas, which is just one-and-a-half games back at 36-37.

So, who are they?

The team that lost four straight two weeks ago?

The team that won four in a row last week?

Or both?

They might be driving their fans nuts with the wild adventure, but they've earned the admiration of their leader.

This weekend, Corbin saw both Paul Millsap and Mo Williams impressively respond after being benched for a quarter or so. All season, he's complimented players like Alec Burks, DeMarre Carroll, Marvin Williams, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson for rolling with the playing-time punches.

"I can't say enough about the guys and how they stay focused and how serious they are about what's going on," Corbin said. "I just have great, great respect for this group of guys." The players also believe they've finally gained some traction. A win Monday at home against a downtrodden Portland team would give the Jazz their first five-game winning streak of the season.

"We know what we can do. On any given night, we can beat the best teams in the league," Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward said. "We've just got to play like that every single game and every single time we step out on the court. It will be a fun and interesting eight last games."

Of course it will.

"Every game counts now," Jazz center Al Jefferson said after repeating that his team is treating this part of the season as the playoffs. "We've got eight more games left, and all of them count."

Big Al said small things like Marvin Williams' rebounding and Paul Millsap's assists are adding up. The Jazz are more focused. They're communicating. They're playing together better, sharing, working.

And winning again.

"Winning is fun," Hayward said. "We've got to be able to do that from here on out."

"That's what's kind of frustrating, too," Jefferson said. "I feel like we could've been doing that all year, but better late than never."

Having endured trials and shaky stretches, it's possible the Jazz could've come out of the refiner's fire even stronger than before. And, hey, if you're going to pick a time to play your best ball, you might as well do it in March and April.

"We know this is desperation time. We've got to be urgent. The focus (Saturday) was good," Hayward said. "We have to have the same focus in the next game. It's a good win for us, but no time to celebrate. We've got to try to win as many of these games as we can, just to try to make it into the playoffs. It will be crucial to do that."

That, the players believe, is what is pulling the Jazz together even while some outside of their locker room figured they'd imploded and given up on the season.

"We understand that every game now is huge for us, so we've got to be prepared. We've got to treat every game as if it's Game 7 in the playoffs," Foye said.

"That's our goal. That's who we want to be. But we don’t just want to make the playoffs, we want to make the playoffs and make some noise."

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