They had won 12 of their last 13 games prior to the mid-February NBA All-Star Game Weekend, including one stretch with 10 straight victories.

The good news for the 38-22 Jazz is that in their seven games since they have not had to endure a losing streak. The bad news is that they haven't put together a winning streak, either.

They're 4-3 since the break — including lousy losses to Minnesota and the Los Angeles Clippers, but quality victories over Golden State and Detroit, and one over Memphis on Saturday in which they didn't shake the struggling Grizzlies until the fourth quarter.

Continuing at such a pace, stringing together alternating victories and losses, simply is not healthy, even if the Jazz do still sit atop the NBA Northwest Division standings, point guard Deron Williams suggested.

"We know we just can't afford to slip up right now," he said. "I think we've already done that a little bit. But the (playoff) race is so close right now that we've got to keep fighting. We can't afford to lose to any more sub.-500 teams."

Nine 35-plus win teams are packed close in the NBA Western Conference standings — including one of the West's best, Dallas, which visits EnergySolutions Arena tonight.

Only eight, of course, will advance to postseason play.

With 22 games to go in the regular season, then, it's no wonder Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is willing to pull out all stops to avoid a finish like Utah had last season — when it lost 12 of its final eight games prior to the playoffs, including a four-game losing streak in mid-March and a five-game skid in early April.

That even includes resorting to psychological trickery — aka, mind games.

"You've got to lie to yourself every day," said Sloan, whose Jazz have managed to win 15 straight home games — their last loss in Utah came way back on Dec. 29 to Boston. "Johnny Kerr (Sloan's ex-teammate in Baltimore, and his first NBA coach in Chicago) always had a great line. He would say, 'I'm lying to my legs again.' ... 'Legs, I'm not gonna have to use you anymore after tonight.'

"That's one of the things, as (Jazz retirees) John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) got older, got tougher for them," added Sloan, whose club is 25-3 overall this season at EnergySolutions Arena, with its only other losses there being to Houston in their home-opener and to Portland in December. "Physically, they could do it. But mentally you've got to play certain games with yourself to get yourself jacked up."

What Sloan has now, though, is a much more youthful club than those he coached when Stockton and Malone were closing in on the conclusions of their respective careers.

"Any way you want to cut it, they're a young team," said Sloan, whose roster includes only three players — Matt Harpring, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur — who have appeared in more than 17 postseason games. "They're still learning how to do it."

Starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, for instance, doesn't even feel like his hops have taken a hit. And Brewer suggested he thinks the Jazz came back from the All-Star Weekend in New Orleans refreshed, not worn down.

Williams insists Utah is the same team it was before the break and just has to get its act together.

And All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer firmly believes the Jazz will be just fine, though even he concedes the ups and downs of a comeback win against the Pistons last Wednesday followed by a loss Friday at New Orleans was not totally righted by Saturday's win at 14-win Memphis.

"We have to back it up with another win (tonight)," Boozer said.

And begin, in other words, a new winning streak.


On the air

Mavs (39-21) at Jazz (38-22)

Tonight, 7 p.m.

EnergySolutions Arena

TV: KJZZ


E-mail: [email protected]