The Denver Nuggets are clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Utah Jazz aren’t far behind.
The surging Jazz shoot for their fourth straight win when they visit the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
Utah is coming off a 99-90 victory at Phoenix on Friday, remaining a half-game behind the Nuggets for the final spot in the West. Utah is trying to reach the postseason for the 21st consecutive season, which would be a major accomplishment in their first year without surefire Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton.
But the Jazz may have to head into Denver without coach Jerry Sloan.
Sloan returned home Friday night to be with his wife Bobbye, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Assistant Phil Johnson, who has worked under Sloan for 16 years, directed the Jazz in Sloan’s absence Friday and likely will be in charge again Sunday.
“We’re very concerned with his wife,” Jazz guard Raja Bell said. “We understand he has to handle his family first. We’re going to try and win for him. Our prayers are with him.”
Gordan Giricek scored a career-high 33 points, the most by a Utah player this season, and Bell added 16 points as the Jazz began a five-game, nine-day road trip.
The significance of Sunday’s showdown with the Nuggets is not lost on the Jazz.
“We’re two teams playing for a playoff spot,” said Bell. “Everybody likes to play on a national stage. The intensity level will be there.”
Denver has alternated wins and losses over the last four games, including a 117-111 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.
Carmelo Anthony scored 31 points and had a career-high nine assists as Denver matched its season-high point total. The 19-year-old rookie forward scored 18 of his points after halftime, grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover in 42 minutes.
“He’s a very special—I’m not even going to say young—he’s a very special player,” Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said after his team scored 65 second-half points to win for only the third time in the past 12 games.
The victory set up what should be an exciting matchup with the Jazz.
“Biggest game of the season,” said Denver’s Andre Miller, who had 23 points and a team-high eight rebounds against the Bucks. “This was a big one (against Milwaukee), but that one is even bigger.”
STANDINGS (through March 12): Jazz - 7th place, 12 GB, Midwest Division. Nuggets - 6th place, 11 1/2 GB, Midwest Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Jazz - Kirilenko, 16.9 ppg and 8.1 rpg; Arroyo, 5.1 apg. Nuggets - Anthony, 20.6 ppg; Camby, 10.2 rpg; Miller, 6.1 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Nuggets, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 20; Nuggets, 96-75. At Utah, the Nuggets pulled away in the second quarter for their first win at Utah since December 1995. Lenard led six players in double figures with 17 points.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Jazz - 11-21 on the road; Nuggets - 22-12 at home.