The Utah Jazz visit Houston to meet the Rockets on Sunday in a matchup that could go a long way in determining the postseason pecking order in the Western Conference.
After a season-high-tying four-game losing streak, the fourth-place Jazz (47-25) have won four of six to clinch the Northwest Division title - the team’s first crown since its streak of four straight Midwest Division titles was snapped in the 2000-01 season.
They also own a one-half game lead on Houston (47-26) for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets, however, have won 11 of their last 13 games to put pressure on Utah as the teams enter the last month of the regular season.
“You’ve got to have mental toughness,” Juwan Howard told the team’s official Web site. “It was good that we were able to keep our poise and we didn’t get rattled. We found a way to dig it out. That’s how it’s going to be sometimes in the playoffs.”
The Rockets outscored the Lakers 7-0 in the final minute of overtime to overcome a four-point deficit.
“When it looked like we were done, we responded,” Shane Battier told the team’s official site. “To become a great team in this league and to make the next step, you have to win games like this. You have to forge your team with adversity. There was a lot of adversity in overtime. Kobe was going and the crowd was into it. We kept fighting.”
The Jazz had their three-game win streak snapped Friday in a 102-93 loss to San Antonio. Utah, second in the league in team field-goal percentage at 47.4 percent on the season, was held to 42.9 percent shooting. The Jazz bench got outscored 50-10.
“They make you work so hard,” said Deron Williams, who scored 23 points to lead five Utah players in double figures. “We are a young team and we are still learning. You have to look at games like this and teams like this and hopefully take something from it.’
Houston will present another tough challenge, as one of only two teams in the league that hold opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than San Antonio does. The Rockets’ defense gives up only 91.1 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting, ranking second and first in those respective categories.
The Jazz have lost six straight on the road, the team’s longest road losing streak since losing eight in a row in 2005. Meanwhile, the Rockets are riding a season-high tying six-game home win streak.
These teams have split two meetings this season, with the home team winning each time. They face each other again in the regular-season finale April 18 at Utah.