DENVER — In coach Jerry Sloan's ideal world, NBA players would treat all 82 regular-season games with equal importance.

Reality, however, suggests otherwise.

Some games simply are bigger than others — and tonight's trip to Denver for the Jazz sure seems like one that is.

The Nuggets, after all, are not merely one of the many NBA Western Conference clubs vying for a playoff spot just like Utah.

They're also a Northwest Division rival, and one — along with current Northwest leader Portland — standing in the way of an automatic postseason berth that comes with winning the division.

Moreover, a Utah win at Denver tonight in the first of four meetings this season would give the now 22-17 Jazz one more victory than the currently 22-15 Nuggets — and pull Sloan's club to within a whisker of the Nuggets' percentage points in the division standings.

Trying to establish an acknowledgement of that reality from those with the Jazz over the past two days, however, has seemed more challenging than dental work on a growling lion.

On one hand, those who've enjoyed winning four straight overall and six in a row now at EnergySolutions Arena don't want to be completely dismissive of Sloan's idealism.

On the other, it is what it is — a really big one, especially for a team that went 1-9 on the road in December and has lost its last three away from home.

To wit:

• Point guard Deron Williams said, "Every game is big for us right now, just because we dug ourselves in such a hole." Yet Williams also spoke of giving "a little bit extra" tonight "because it's a team in our division, a team that's ... ahead of us but we're still in reach of."

• Power forward Carlos Boozer said, "We're trying to catch back up to where we'd like to be at in our division, and the playoff hunt in general. So every game is a big game. As it's been for about a month." In the same breath, Boozer added, "But this game we have an opportunity to actually gain an entire game on one of the teams in our division, and that's huge for us because we'd like to repeat as division champion if we can. So it is a big game."

• Small forward Andrei Kirilenko said, "You media like those words 'rivalry' and 'special games."' But, Kirilenko admitted with his very next sentence, "It is a special game."

In any event, there is one point on which the Jazz — who are just 6-14 away from home — can agree even amongst themselves.

• "We've been having success (16-3) at home," Williams said, "and we've got to see if we can do it on the road."

• "Hopefully we can play the same on the road (as at home)," Boozer added.

• Or, as Kirilenko put it, "We need to start playing good on the road."

Ideas on just how the Jazz should go about doing that, however, aren't so simplistic.

Jazz players seem to have been programmed the past few outings to believe it all starts with defense.

"We've got to take that same intensity on the defensive side to the road," Boozer said after a particularly impressive defensive effort during the fourth quarter of the Jazz's Monday home win over Milwaukee.

"I think it's just a mind-set," Williams added Wednesday. "I think we've got to pull our energy level up, and our defense has to be a lot better on the road."

Suggest the same to Sloan, however, and the Jazz coach responds with a curve.

"The key to us is ... to execute our offense," he said Wednesday. "Because if we don't execute our offense, they'll run a lot easier. ... If we take a lot of bad shots, that's gonna play into their hands. ... We have to try to make them guard us."

Reality to that facet of Sloan's idealism is that it all goes hand-in-hand.

No wonder even he, when pressed, actually admitted tonight's meeting is not completely akin to all the rest.

"It's an important game," Sloan conceded in what was perhaps a moment of weakness. "Anytime you play a team in your division, it's always very important."


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