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Utah Jazz: Bucks visit town for what could be called the NBA's 'Lottery Bowl'

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:40 p.m. MST

Utah Jazz small forward Richard Jefferson (24) celebrates after Trey Burke scores in the final minute as the Utah Jazz defeat the Charlotte Bobcats 83-80 in NBA basketball Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Jazz small forward Richard Jefferson (24) celebrates after Trey Burke scores in the final minute as the Utah Jazz defeat the Charlotte Bobcats 83-80 in NBA basketball Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Usually, Thursday night games are reserved for handpicked matchups of top-tier NBA teams who play in front of TNT’s large audience.

This week is an exception.

A big exception.

The Utah Jazz will host the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday night in a game that was not picked up by national outlets.

The contest won’t feature two elite teams. Their records are a combined 17-48, after all.

It isn’t on TNT, either.

This is the one Thursday of the six-month season in which the NBA has a regular slate of nine games.

EnergySolutions Arena is just lucky to host the game between two organizations with the worst records in their respective conferences and whose biggest matchup in 2014 will likely happen on May 20 when the league’s lottery takes place to determine the order of the June 26 draft.

Utah Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward (20) shoots over Charlotte Bobcats shooting guard Gerald Henderson (9) as the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Bobcats play NBA basketball Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward (20) shoots over Charlotte Bobcats shooting guard Gerald Henderson (9) as the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Bobcats play NBA basketball Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

In reality, this Bucks-Jazz game might be called the NBA Draft Lottery Bowl if it were a college football showdown.

While “tanking” has become a household word around Wisconsin and Utah — fair or not — Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said his rebuilding squad is focusing on trying to win and develop, not on trying to put the franchise in a primo spot for the upcoming loaded draft.

“Who knows what happens down the road,” Corbin said. “You can’t get engaged in that as a group of guys.”

Since their 1-14 start, the Jazz haven’t been tanking very well anyway. Utah even has a respectable 9-7 record with the starting lineup of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Richard Jefferson, Marvin Williams and Derrick Favors.

“You ask these guys to go out and work as hard as they can to be as good as we can be now,” Corbin said. “We’ve got to concentrate on who we have now.”

Since none of its veteran free agents were re-signed last offseason, the perception has been that Utah is more than willing to lose games this season — in part to give young guys like Favors more playing opportunities but also to put the Jazz in position to pick up a potential star like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft.

The tank talk really escalated when the Jazz lost their first eight games of the season, even though injuries to key players like Burke and Williams factored into that sputtering start.

Favors said he doesn’t get bothered by what others say about the Jazz and tanking.

“It is what it is,” the Jazz forward/center said. “As players, we come out, we try to win every game, come out and play hard. We ain’t coming out and trying to lose.”

One common thought, however, is that the Jazz might win too much for their own good. They’re already 9 1/2 games out of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, so a postseason push is highly unlikely.

But it’s also possible that they could win enough to take themselves out of the most likely position to get one of the five guys projected to be stars in the NBA.

Then again, the Jazz want their young foundation players to develop a winning habit, not just personal skills or statistics. That’s why Corbin said he asks his players to work so hard in practice and in games.

“I don’t want them to think it’s just for naught,” Corbin said. ”Anything less than that (playing our best), you have to be disappointed in.”

The Bucks (7-24) have switched spots with the Jazz (10-24).

Milwaukee began the season with a 2-2 record before falling on hard times, including an 11-game losing streak while standout big man Larry Sanders was out with an injury.

The Bucks picked up a surprisingly big 94-79 road win over the injury-plagued Lakers on New Year’s Eve when point guard Brandon Knight exploded for 37 points. But that was just the squad’s second win in 10 games.

The Jazz, meanwhile, went 5-5 in that same stretch, including victories in four of their last seven outings.

“For us right now, we can’t afford to relax against anybody,” Corbin said. “We’re trying to build a reputation. We’re trying to be able to find out who we are and how we’re going to play on a nightly basis. We’ve got to make sure we come out with a sense of urgency to play against these guys regardless of what their record is.”

Of course, it's quite possible Milwaukee coach Larry Drew is telling his Bucks the same thing about the Jazz.

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