DALLAS — They secured a playoff berth Sunday.

They clinched the NBA's Northwest Division championship Tuesday.

They have won four straight games and seven of their last eight, including not only Friday's victory over the defending league-champion San Antonio Spurs, but also Tuesday's on the road against the Western Conference-leading New Orleans Hornets.

With four games remaining in their regular season, including tonight's contest against the apparently postseason-bound Dallas Mavericks, even coach Jerry Sloan has to be giddy over the effort of late from his juiced-up Jazz.

Right?

Not so fast, pulp pucker.

"I don't know if it was us as much as the other team," Sloan said Wednesday when asked about the quality of play his 52-26 club has exhibited at the start of a closing stretch with six games against five quality conference opponents, including two meetings with the Spurs.

"You look at the game (Tuesday) night, they (the Hornets) had won eight or nine, 10, 11 games in a row at home (actually 11), and I think sometimes there's kind of a point that they kind of slack off a little," he added.

"And then the game (Friday night) we had with San Antonio, we played pretty well, I thought, in the first half, and had a pretty good third quarter. But then things kind of fell apart, so I don't think you put a lot of credibility in (it) other than winning the ballgame."

Asked by way of follow-up if he'd be satisfied should the Jazz at least continue their current level of play, Sloan scoffed further.

"I think that's what they get paid for," he said. "I don't think that's asking too much — (for them to) play hard every night.

"I think, for the most part, we have a right to expect that."

Sloan obviously is seeking to squeeze every ounce he can get out of his Jazz as they fight for homecourt advantage in the first round of the upcoming playoffs, and he even has his point guard buying into the notion that they're nowhere close to peaking.

"I hope not," Deron Williams said when asked if he thought Utah was at the top of its game.

"I think we're playing great the last couple games," he added, "but we still have some tough games ahead of us."

That includes tonight's against two-time MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas, a 49-29 team for whom Sloan has evident respect.

"Not a lot of teams want to play 'em," Sloan said of the Mavs, who finally seem to be gelling under recently reacquired point guard Jason Kidd.

"They're one of those teams that people get ready to play against," he added, "because they've got some great players and (opponents) know that they're capable of winning it all."

If the Jazz are to have a chance of the same, Williams suggested, they must more consistently display the sort of defensive effort they have in their last two outings.

Utah has yielded just 130 points since Friday — a Jazz opponent season-low 64 in a 26-point win over San Antonio, and a Hornets season-low 66 in an 11-point victory at New Orleans.

The Hornets' 66, incidentally, is just one point more than that franchise's record low — and came in a game in which the Jazz scored a season-low 77 of their own.

That includes just nine Jazz points during a fourth quarter in which New Orleans, whose five-game overall win streak also came to a close, cut a 20-point Utah lead early in the final period to nine in the game's final minute.

"I'm looking to see how we respond (tonight), and if we come out with that same defensive mentality," said Williams, who still regrets the fact that the Jazz lost at New Jersey one night after knocking off the NBA-leading Boston Celtics. "You know, we've had games where we come out and we share the ball well, we play defense well — and then the next game it's like we forget all about it, forget what made us successful.

"So as long as we just remember what happened the last two games: We did it with defense. Obviously we didn't even need the offense to win (Tuesday). It was terrible."

Teammate Carlos Boozer expressed similar sentiments after Tuesday's victory, the Jazz's third over a New Orleans club that has not lost three times to any other opponent this season.

"We're trying to get sharpened for the playoffs," he said.

"If we can play defense like this and like the way we played against San Antonio," Boozer added, "we're gonna have some more wins."


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