For much of April it appeared the Utah Jazz would end up right where they did last season, a step behind the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the Midwest Division title.
But suddenly the Jazz are back the in title picture again, the recipients of an 11th-hour stroke of luck. The Jazz, who were readying for a second-place finish - and a first-round playoff pairing against the Phoenix Suns - are now only a half-game back of the Spurs. In a shocking development Friday, the Denver Nuggets - the worst team in the NBA - beat the Spurs, 125-122.The Jazz play the Los Angeles Lakers today at 1:30 p.m. in the Salt Palace. The game will be aired nationally on NBC (Channel 2). That will be followed by a Sunday game at Golden State.
San Antonio has only a home game against Dallas remaining.
At stake for the Jazz is the possibility of winning or tying for the division lead, and playing Golden State in the first round of the playoffs. It appeared the Jazz were headed for the No. 4 or 5 spot in the West and a first-round date against the Suns. With only games against Denver and Dallas, a pair of lottery outcasts, it appeared San Antonio would retain its lead in the divisional race.
Two wins for the Jazz this weekend can clinch no worse than a tie for the the Midwest title, and secure them the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference playoffs, against the No. 7 Golden State Warriors. The Jazz have a 3-2 series edge against San Antonio, assuring them of a higher seeding if they ended up tied with the Spurs.
As for Phoenix, the Suns lead the Jazz by a half game in the conference standings after Friday night's 104-93 loss to Seattle. If the Jazz finish behind San Antonio, they will play Phoenix in the playoffs, and vice versa. Which team gets the home court advantage depends on which one has the best overall record. After that, the criteria are head-to-head competition and winning percentage in the conference.
If if comes down to winning percentage in the division between Utah and Phoenix, the Jazz would get the home court advantage.
Winning the remaining two games isn't an easy assignment for the Jazz. They have lost twice to L.A. already this year, both in the Forum - by a total of 34 points. However, when the teams met in December, the Jazz smashed the Lakers, 101-79 at the Salt Palace.
"We've just got to come out and try to stay with them," said Sloan. "We missed a lot of easy baskets last time we played them. We've got to make those."
Until Thursday night, the odds on Utah staying with the Lakers weren't long. They had struggled for several weeks against a series of non-playoff teams. Playing the good teams was another matter entirely. The Jazz lost 131-117 at Phoenix and 110-95 at Los Angeles. But Thursday, they wiped out Seattle, 130-103, in their best performance in weeks.
Predictably, Coach Jerry Sloan wouldn't talk about playoff pairings. "We just want to be playing as well as we can and hopefully have some momentum going into the playoffs." The Lakers, who have won seven of their last 10 games, suffered a loss to Golden State on Thursday. They have already clinched the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, finishing second in the Pacific Division to Portland.
Pregame Notes: James Worthyleads the Lakers with a 21.8 point average . . . John Stockton now has 1,136 assists for the year. Each assist will add to his single-season NBA record . . . Blue Edwards has made 22 of 33 field goals in the Jazz's last six games . . . Karl Malone will probably finish second in the NBA scoring race (29.0) to Chicago's Michael Jordan (31.5). Stockton's 14.2 average will give him the assist title . . . Jeff Malone is second in free throw percentage (.915) . . . Mark Eaton has injured ribs, but will play against the Lakers, while Andy Toolson is recovering from a slightly sprained ankle.