SALT LAKE CITY — Cue Craig Bolerjack.
It's time to latch those seat belts for playoff positioning teams in the Western Conference. The race to the end of the regular season's finish line is definitely going to be a wild ride.
After 77 games, four teams out West — the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns — are all knotted up with records of 50-27. You read the standings right — zero percentage points separate the No. 2 team with the fifth-place squad.
Adding to the fun-finish factor, only five games remain on the 2009-10 schedule to sort things out.
As Boler would say (and likely will again) on his Jazz TV broadcasts: "Buckle up!"
You might brush up on tiebreaker scenarios while you're at it.
"That's how it always feels around this time," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "It's been this way in the West for the last three years. Everything comes down to that last game."
For Utah, that last game is a week from Wednesday — April 14 at home against the fellow seed-jockeying Suns.
The Jazz, who practice again this morning after taking Sunday off, have another toughie Tuesday at EnergySolutions Arena against Oklahoma City. The oft-overlooked Thunder have beaten Utah all three times they've played this season and are not far behind the tied-up fearsome foursome.
Those challenging home games are sandwiched around road contests at Houston, New Orleans and Golden State.
Wins will at the very least keep the Jazz tied for second.
A hiccup loss might catapult Utah out of the top five.
"That's how it is right now," said Williams, when asked about getting knocked out of sole possession of second place with Friday's loss to the Lakers.
"One win we can be back up two spots, so it's not that big of a deal."
The Jazz, Williams added, are simply trying to shake off that frustrating loss at Staples Center, Utah's 14th in a row vs. the Lakers in the star-studded building.
"We've just got to win basketball games," he said.
Friday's game showed Jazz coach Jerry Sloan that his team still has some work and toughening up to do in order to make a deep playoff run.
"This time of the year, you've got to learn how to compete," Sloan said. "You get in the playoffs (and) that's what you're going to be having to do to try to win. ...
"Otherwise," he added, "you go home early."
WORKOUT WARRIOR: Considering how legendary Karl Malone's training regimen remains to be among the Jazz, the Hall of Fame should ask The Mailman to donate some of his weights to display with his basketball paraphernalia.
Mark McKown, the Jazz's strength and conditioning coach since 1997, remains in awe about Malone's routine that helped him build his body and game to Hall of Fame levels.
"With this group (of current Jazz players), we've got guys that are incredibly intense and work really hard," McKown said, "and they don't scratch the surface when it comes to Karl's work-ethic obsession."
It might surprise you who McKown credited for once trying to keep up with Malone — for a while, at least.
"Jacque Vaughn was pretty good as a rookie, he'd try," McKown recalled. "But he ended up sort of disappearing a little bit."
He wasn't the only one who trailed Malone in training.
"I'd hike behind him," Sloan said. "I never could get close enough to workout with him."
Williams isn't sure he could, either.
"No, I don't think I can," he laughed. "I don't think I can keep up, even right now."
MORE PRAISE: Bill Walton recently referenced the thesaurus in his big red head to describe Malone.
"Karl Malone is poised, accomplished, polished — and he's fantastic at everything that he does," the former NBA standout and TV announcer said. "He's tough, he's fierce, he's a fighter."
Today's official announcement that Malone will be enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame a year after the Jazz's John Stockton and Sloan hardly surprises Walton.
"The sense of professionalism, the sense of responsibility, the sense of obligation, the sense of 'I've got a job to do, and I'm gonna get it done' — few people in the history of life have been able to achieve that at the level of Karl Malone," Walton said. "And my guess is that's he's gonna get into the Hall of Fame. Just a guess."
W L Gb
1. L.A. Lakers 55 22 ---
2. Dallas 50 27 5
3. Denver 50 27 5
4. Utah 50 27 5
5. Phoenix 50 27 5
6. Okla. City 48 28 6.5
7. San Antonio 47 29 7.5
8. Portland 47 30 8
Contributing: Tim Buckley
e-mail: [email protected]