The Utah Jazz’s longest winning streak in more than a year has helped the team make up significant ground in the crowded Western Conference playoff race.
Extending that run with a victory over the Houston Rockets would likely make the Jazz feel a lot better about their postseason position.
The Jazz go for their ninth straight victory Wednesday night when they host the Rockets, the team they’ve defeated in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two years but haven’t beaten in two meetings this season.
Utah (37-23) has been plagued by injuries to key players all season long, but now that they’re relatively healthy, the Jazz look like they’ve finally found some stability. They’ve won 11 of 12 since the start of February, including eight in a row for their longest winning streak since they won 10 straight from Jan. 18-Feb. 6 of last season.
“We’re in a good position right now, considering all that’s happened this year,” said point guard Deron Williams, who missed most of the first month of the season with an ankle injury.
Utah’s recent success has helped move it out of the dreaded ninth spot in the West standings. In the deeper conference, however, the Jazz aren’t taking a postseason berth for granted.
“We’re still concerned about making the playoffs, just because we could lose a couple of games and be out,” Williams said.
The Jazz would likely be more confident if they can beat the Rockets (39-22). They’ve met Houston in the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons, winning both series despite not having homecourt advantage in either.
This season, however, Utah has dropped its first two meetings with Houston, both on the road.
The Jazz, who host Northwest Division-leading Denver on Friday before starting a five-game road trip, know that their next two games are big tests that could have significant playoff implications down the line.
“These are two teams that are ahead of us in the standings right now - two teams that we’re still in striking distance of and have a chance to catch this week if we win them,” Williams said. “That would definitely give us a nice streak going into the road.”
Houston has been nearly as hot as Utah lately, winning eight of its last nine. Star center Yao Ming had 20 points and lesser-known forwards Carl Landry and Luis Scola added 22 and 20 points, respectively, in a 107-97 win over Toronto on Tuesday night.
“Everybody is going to be thinking about Yao,” said Scola, averaging 15.1 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting 56.5 percent during the Rockets’ 8-1 surge. “We need to punish them for that. So, hopefully, they’ll stop thinking about him. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Houston’s frontcourt could be tested by Utah’s Carlos Boozer, who’s played four games since returning from a 44-game absence caused by a strained tendon and surgery on his left knee. The two-time All-Star said before practice Tuesday that his knee was probably at about 80 percent.
“I keep working it. I’ve only been back for about a week and I’ve got to continue to work it so I continue to get strength,” Boozer said. “It’s good to be out there right now. I’m strengthening every day.”
The Jazz could use Boozer back in the paint against the Rockets. Yao had 26 points and 11 rebounds in a 120-115 double-overtime win Dec. 27, then scored 19 with 12 boards in a 108-99 victory Jan. 21.