Jerry Sloan saw a sign the other day, and oh did it ever rub him the wrong way.

No, not the one that said "Dead End." Or "System Error." Not even the one advertising the price of gas.

Rather, what it read was simply, "Playoff tickets for sale."

Oops.

"I didn't know that we made 'em yet," Sloan, obviously still perturbed by the effort shown by Utah in Thursday night's TNT-televised loss to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, said prior to practice Friday.

"You know," the Jazz coach added, "we have to come and make the playoffs before you can have a playoff game. That's what we've got to do. We've got to do everything we can to try to get in, because with the schedule the way it is, and the uncertainty of guys staying healthy — that's a tremendous thing to try to overcome."

Even though Utah remains fairly comfortably ahead of Denver in the chase for the NBA's Northwest Division championship, which carries an automatic postseason berth, and even though the Jazz seem somewhat settled in a nine-team pack that is chasing eight playoff Western Conference playoff spots, Sloan is taking nothing for granted.

Not with 12 games remaining in the regular season, including tonight's against struggling Seattle, and the last two weeks of the schedule loaded with the likes of seemingly playoff-bound San Antonio (twice), New Orleans, Dallas and Houston — not to mention the Nuggets, who remain within striking distance of eighth place.

Not with a team that has lost three of its last six outings and that saw its 19-game home winning streak come to a screeching halt against L.A. — the first opponent to win in EnergySolutions Arena since league-leading Boston back on Dec. 29.

And especially not after the way the 45-25 Jazz performed Thursday, when they fell behind by 20 in the opening quarter and by as many as 24 before halftime.

"The way we ran the floor and the way we tried to execute our offense, most of the time, left a lot to be desired," Sloan said Friday. "The (Lakers) came out and really got after us and really put a lot of pressure on us and shoved us around, pushed us around. We didn't have much response to it.

"I was totally surprised that we came out and really didn't compete," he added. "I'm talking about running the floor. I can understand missing shots and that sort of thing. But the way we ran the floor, the way we tried to execute our offense — it was like we were running in mud."

The Jazz's top two scorers, however, did not seem nearly so down in the dumps Friday.

Rather, point guard Deron Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer — who recorded their 43rd and 46th double-doubles, respectively, on Thursday — opted to seek out the glass-half-full outlook that Sloan would have found so hard to swallow.

"We're in a good place," Boozer said. "We're in a really good position."

Boozer sees the team that has won eight of its last 11.

He sees the one that plays its next three and three of its next seven at home, where the Jazz are 29-4 this season.

And he, like Williams, sees four straight upcoming games against clubs — Seattle, Charlotte, the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota — that will not be taking part in the playoffs, a stretch that on paper would seem to give the Jazz ample opportunity to make up whatever ground they lost in the last couple weeks.

Williams, in fact, does not seem worried at all these days about failing to qualify for postseason play.

Quite to the contrary, he considers the loss to the Lakers merely "a little slipup" — and has his eyes set not on ninth but instead the highest perch in the West, and homecourt advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs that would accompany a No. 1 conference seed.

"We can still get the top spot if we go on a little run," Williams said, "and I think we're definitely capable of doing that.

"Hopefully," he added, "we can get our confidence back up and go off on another little streak."

Which would be a sign that perhaps even Sloan would not mind seeing.


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