Suns stand in way of Jazz's playoff push
By JORDAN GARRETSON
With their sights set squarely on claiming the Western Conference's final playoff spot, the Utah Jazz have little margin for error as the season winds down. They've pushed their luck in recent weeks with poor play, but hope to take advantage of a home-heavy schedule to end year after putting the brakes on a losing streak.
The Phoenix Suns are still stuck in yet another skid - one that may not end anytime soon without improvements on the defensive end.
Utah looks to build on an encouraging victory and send the Suns to a fourth straight loss on Wednesday night.
A 5-12 record since the All-Star break has caused Utah (35-36) to fall one-game back of the Los Angeles Lakers in the race for eighth place. But while the Lakers enter their game Wednesday at Minnesota mired in a three-game losing streak, Utah put an end to its own four-game slide with a 107-91 home win over Philadelphia on Monday.
Despite squandering a lead of five games over Los Angeles at the break, the Jazz's confidence hasn't necessarily been shaken - especially considering seven of their final 11 games are in Salt Lake City. Utah owns a 25-9 home record.
"We can definitely do it," Gordon Hayward said of Utah making the playoffs for the second straight year and sixth time in seven seasons. "We've beaten some of the best teams in the league. I know we can do it. It's just a matter of us going out there, playing as a team, helping each other defensively and making a lot of plays."
Hayward has been making plays for the Jazz over the last week. After coming off the bench for the last four months, Hayward is averaging 15.7 points in starting the last six. He's burying 56.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (13 of 23), compared to a 41.6 percent season average
"I think it's big for us," Randy Foye said of Hayward in a starting role. "I've been out there the whole year, not by myself, but Mo (Williams) has (been hurt) and (Hayward) has been playing with the second unit. With those guys out there, everyone's a threat and it's pick your poison for opponents."
The Suns (23-48) have lost three straight - their eighth skid of at least three games this season - as well as nine of 11. They're ranked in the bottom third for the season in scoring defense at 100.6 points per game, but have been particularly bad over the last 10, yielding an average of 106.2 points on 48.1 percent shooting.
Phoenix, which is 7-26 on the road, did chip away at a 16-point deficit in the third quarter of Sunday's home game against Brooklyn, but wound up taking a 102-100 loss.
"We are of course disappointed because we lost," interim coach Lindsey Hunter said. "But if we can have that type of effort every night we will take it. ... That is what we have to do every single night, every single practice, we have to fight."
The Jazz won two of the three previous meetings this year, though Jared Dudley provided a hot hand for Phoenix, averaging 18.0 points on 68.8 percent shooting.
Al Jefferson is averaging 20.7 points and 11.0 rebounds for the Jazz in the three meetings.