Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah's C.J. Miles as the Utah Jazz defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 93-88 as they play NBA basketball Monday, Jan. 30, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's only the first day of February — go flip your calendar — but the Utah Jazz already have April, May and June on their minds.

Spring fever?

More like playoff fever.

Yep, making the postseason is on the to-do list of this team that few expected to amount to much of anything and that only has two players remaining on it from the last Jazz playoff qualifier (waaaay back in 2010).

Skeptics can say what they will — and point out that the Jazz have only played six of their 33 road games, that inconsistencies still exist, that inexistent outside shooting will eventually haunt them, that the NBA Draft Lottery awaits that ... blah, blah, blah.

Despite doubts and disses, this team believes it belongs — not only in the postseason conversation but, yes, in the postseason.

That's why Utah's playoff quest was a popular subject in the locker room Monday following the 93-89 comeback win over Portland.

"We realized what we were playing for. We're playing for the playoffs," Jazz guard Earl Watson said. "This (was) not just another game. ...

"We all know in this league after January the season flies by, so this game was epic. It was monumental. It was big for us to get some space. This whole week is an amazing week, amazing opportunities for us to climb up in the Western Conference."

Next on the 12-7 Jazz's amazing checklist: the high-flying, 12-6 Los Angeles Clippers tonight in an ESPN-televised showdown.

"Every game means more and more. Each game is huge for us, especially at home," Jazz point guard Devin Harris said. "We've got to have these games. With the Clippers being in town and them being above us in the standings, it carries a little bit more weight."

The Jazz realize the scary part about this rematch is that the Clippers, no doubt, have a score to settle after being blown out 108-79 in Utah just two weeks ago. And L.A. will have standout playmakers Chris Paul and Mo Williams this time around.

Utah, meanwhile, will be without either one or two starters. Defensive catalyst Raja Bell has been ruled out for a second straight game with a strained right adductor, and leading scorer Al Jefferson will be a game-time decision because of his inflamed right ankle.

Jazz small forward Josh Howard called the Portland win a playoff-like "statement game." He considers tonight's Clippers contest a "motivational game." Almost three months remain in this irregular season, but the Jazz need to hold serve at EnergySolutions Arena where they've already stumbled three times, including a tough-to-swallow, double-overtime loss to Toronto.

"We've got to hold our home court down again," Howard said.

Tough part will be staying in the top eight, especially with 23 of their next 34 games being on the road after tonight's tilt.

"We have an opportunity to make it. The guys know that they're going to work extremely hard every night to have a chance to make the playoffs," Corbin said. "You look at how the West is, it's going to be a tight race all the way down to the end. It's going to take a lot of wins to get in there."

That raises the level of importance for these games against fellow contenders in front of the Jazz faithful (on non-Jimmer nights). After all, the Jazz are in the No. 5 spot now, but they're just one game ahead of ninth-place Houston (12-9) on the outside-looking-in spot. Even No. 11 Minnesota (10-11) is only three games back.

"We have to make sure we take care of our business now. We can't afford to let games slip away from us," Corbin continued. "We can't afford to have lapses in what we're doing, so we have to continue to grow and stay together and continue to win games."

Especially, Jazz forward Paul Millsap added, when the team is away from the ESA.

"We've got to prove it night in, night out. We've got to be consistent and continue to get wins," Millsap said. "Most important, we've got to win on the road. If we win on the road, then we'll draw a lot of people's attention. Consistency on the road is the key."

Corbin didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative when asked if he believes his team is a top-eight team out West.

"Most definitely. I think we can compete with anybody if we play right and we play smart and we play hard," he said. "We can play with anybody. I want our guys to understand that, that we can compete with anybody as long as we do the right things on the floor."

The longer the season progresses with the Jazz in a playoff position in the standings, the more the team believes it belongs there, too.

"That's our goal. You always got to bring up your goals," Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. "That's what we're fighting for. We didn't make it last year, so we're going to take it step by step and make the playoffs first and see what happens."

There's also the thinking that playoff talk might be premature. Early success could lead to a letdown because players get ahead of themselves and stumble. Then again, keeping a big-picture focus can also be inspiring on a nightly basis.

"The thing is, the West is really jumbled up right now. It's a logjam in there," Bell said. "I see ourself as a playoff team, but we're going to kind of make our own fate.

"We've got to continue to win, continue to play well, and in this race I don't think it's going to be where there's a separation and you can coast on in. We're going to have to continue to get better and win our way into the playoffs."

Watson scoffed when it was insinuated that the Jazz might not necessarily be capable of being one of the NBA's better teams.

"I think we can be the best team," he said. "I think any team can be the best team if they step out on the court with focus, and they play with determination and play together.

"I always say belief is stronger than reality," the UCLA product and John Wooden disciple added. "Our belief is there. Now we're starting to prove things in reality."

Jazz tonight vs. Clippers

8:30 p.m., ESA


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