Before Wednesday night's Jazz-Suns game, it was advantage Phoenix. After Utah's 103-99 victory, the advantage had turned in the Jazz's favor.
We're talking homecourt advantage, as in playoffs.Even though the NBA playoffs are more than two months away, the Jazz and Suns are headed on a collision course for another first-round matchup. Remember last spring the two teams played that exciting series that wasn't decided until Kevin Johnson's jumper in the final second of Game 5 at the Salt Palace.
The two Western Conference rivals own nearly identical records (31-16 to 30-16 for the Jazz) with the fourth- and fifth-best records in the conference. That means they'd meet in the first round if the playoffs started today, and Utah would enjoy the homecourt advantage. Before the game, Phoenix had the edge.
Although most of the players and coaches tried to downplay the significance of Wednesday night's game, the first between the teams since they split in Japan three months ago, it could turn out to have great importance by the end of the season.
"If it's big here in February, then I'm going to have a baby by the time April gets here," said Phoenix Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, "It was just a game we thought we had a chance to win on their court. Now instead of 16 games over .500, we're only 14 games over .500."
Utah Coach Jerry Sloan's biggest concern with the contest was avoiding a two-game losing streak right before the All-Star break. But he did finally admit there was something special about the game.
"Anytime you play a team that's right there on your tail, you want to win so you can have the homecourt advantage against them in the playoffs," said Sloan. "But you haven't made the season just because you've won."
One player who acknowledged thinking about another Utah-Phoenix playoff repeat was ex-Ute Tom Chambers, who might be a little biased since his family lives here. "We think about it a lot," he said. "We just hope we can position ourselves to at least get the homecourt advantage."
On the other hand, Utah's Karl Malone, who led the Jazz with 29 points and 12 rebounds, said, "I don't worry about it. You can't afford to think about it. I just want to have a good season and go from there."
Johnson said he'll keep his eye on Utah later in the season.
"As the season winds down you're definitely going to be looking to see who you're matched up with," the Phoenix point guard said. "We have a great rivalry with Utah, but it's not a bitter rivalry. We have a lot mutual respect."
Of course a lot can happen in the final 35 games or so. But right now the Jazz and Suns have a lot of space on both sides of them in the standings. The Jazz trail San Antonio by three games in the loss column and are four games up on Golden State, the No. 6 team. One thing to consider: Phoenix has three more home games than the Jazz from here on out.
"The Jazz and Suns know each other well. They know what we're going to do and we know what they're going to do," said Fitzsimmons. "I'll just wait until we play again sometime."
That will be April 2 in Phoenix, although the Jazz and Suns may be renewing their rivalry in late April, just like last year.