Swept up in the anticipation of the Jazz's first Midwest Division championship in five years, Coach Jerry Sloan made his boldest recorded statement about the race Thursday. "Obviously," he said earnestly, "we've got a pretty good shot at it."
Considering the Jazz have a 51/2-game lead with six games left, Sloan is on safe ground.The Jazz can clinch the title by defeating Houston tonight in the Salt Palace. Denver's 121-112 loss at Sacramento Thursday lowered the magic number to one.
Even after spending the last four seasons by never threatening to win the division, the Jazz are acting cool about the latest quest. "We're just taking it in stride," said Mark Eaton. "It's something we're going to accept and just keep on going, without giving it too much thought."
A rookie in the 1983-84 division title season, Thurl Bailey has a different attitude this time. "The focus now with this team is that we can go beyond that," he said. "We don't want to pop out the champagne just because we clinch the division - our work's not done yet."
Once they've wrapped up the division, the Jazz can deal directly with two other goals. They have little chance of catching Phoenix for the second-best record in the Western Conference; the Suns' magic number over the Jazz is three, following Thursday's win at Houston. The Jazz also need just three wins in the last six games to hit 50.
"We're looking to see how many games we can win," said John Stockton. "The division's going to take care of itself. It's more important to have momentum for the playoffs. It would be more important if we were five games down (in the division) and came up one short, than if we were five games up and won by one."
Winning the division will help the Jazz's playoff seeding, but Sloan generaly agrees with Stockton. Even if next week's games become meaningless in the standings, he's not backing off. "You want to win as many games as you can so you stay in a rhythm of winning. Winning is kind of contagious," he said.