MINNEAPOLIS — Thanks to a scheduling quirk, the Northwest Division-leading Jazz — beginning with tonight's late-February visit to Minneapolis — play what is an 11-win Minnesota four times in their final 26 games of the 2007-08 NBA season.

They can only wish there was as much certainty, and assurance of a seemingly favorable first-round matchup, in their postseason future.

Reality, after all, suggests the Jazz would much rather play, say, Golden State, whom they handily beat in last year's second round, than, oh, San Antonio, which dominated them in last season's Western Conference finals.

"There are teams you want to face, and maybe teams that you probably don't," veteran forward Matt Harpring. "But you play whatever hand your dealt."

The Jazz, though, have no idea if a jack, a joker or a hunk of junk will be in the cards.

And they're hardly alone.

Instead, the jam-packed conference standings has nine teams all within six games of each other — none with any clue as to whom they might see in this year's opening round of the playoffs.

Moreover, just three games separate the West's top seven clubs — a pack that includes the Jazz.

"It would be nice to know who you're gonna play," said point guard Deron Williams, who last season found out more than a week before Utah's first-round series started that the Jazz would go up against Houston.

"But we've still got to get to the playoffs," added Williams, who knows all too well that one of the nine will be the odd team out. "You know, if we don't finish out the season, we might not even make the playoffs with the way things are looking right now. So we've got to worry about us, worry about playing our best basketball, keep getting better, keep improving and keep winning."

The 36-20 Jazz's chances, of course, look quite bright considering that they've won 14 straight home games and 14 of their last 16 overall — and that, after Denver lost to Detroit on Monday, they now have a three-game lead over the Nuggets in the NBA's Northwest Division.

Still, nothing in what is shaping up to be a wild and wacky conference race is guaranteed, especially if the Jazz were to revert in March to how they played throughout a shaky 5-11 December.

It's with that in mind that walking away with four victories against the Western Conference cellar-dwelling Timberwolves — who also visit Utah on March 5 and April 2, and play host to the Jazz again on March 30 — seems imperative.

"We'd like to. It's one of those teams we should beat," Williams said. "But you play this game for a reason, and in this league any team can beat any team on any given night, so you never know."

"It would be disappointing (not to win all four)," Harpring added. "I mean, right now we're in the stretch of the season where we need to win the games that we're supposed to win. And the race is so tight that we can't afford to have a game like we had the other night."

The Jazz's loss to the Pacific Division cellar-dwelling Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, it's apparent, still weighs on their collective psyche.

"I think we walked into that game thinking we were gonna win, because (injured starting point guard) Sam Cassell was out, because of their record," Williams said. "But that definitely wasn't the case."

"We got beat," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan added Monday. "That's what happens when you don't get yourself ready to play and try to do it individually. It's hard to win that way.

"You've got to play as a team, you've got to stay focused as a team, and it's takes a little more toughness to do that when you don't have people supporting you like you do at home."

As for the crazy conference picture — New Orleans recently found out the hard way how easy it can be to drop from first to fifth in the standings overnight — Sloan suggests the Jazz should essentially forget it for the time being.

"You've just got to play today, and that's it," he said. "You start playing that game, and you'll have yourself so confused you won't know what you're doing.

"Every team I've been around that knows how to play under those conditions, they don't worry about the other team," Sloan added. "Worry about ourselves, get yourselves ready to play, be as good as you can be, and hopefully as good as your team can be."

It's with that in mind that Sloan wants his players focused squarely on the 11-43 Timberwolves — even if Minnesota has lost seven of its last eight games this season, not to mention a certain superstar named Kevin Garnett to Boston last offseason.

And it seems they are.

"It's one of those trap games, where you might go in thinking you're gonna win automatically," said Williams, who knew without being cued that Minnesota is the only team the Jazz have not yet faced this season. "But that's not the case."

"We've got to be ready," Harpring added. "It's not a game we can walk into and just win."

Western Conference standings

W ... L ... GB

d-L.A. Lakers ... 39 ... 17 ... —

d-San Antonio ... 38 ... 17 ... 1/2

Phoenix ... 38 ... 18 ... 1

d-Utah ... 36 ... 20 ... 3

New Orleans ... 37 ... 18 ... 1 1/2

Dallas ... 38 ... 19 ... 1 1/2

Houston ... 36 ... 20 ... 3

Golden State ... 33 ... 22 ... 5 1/2

Denver ... 33 ... 23 ... 6

d — division leader

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com