As two of the Western Conference’s best home teams, it’s safe to say the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns will be going all out to try to lock up home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Three head-to-head meetings over the final six weeks might determine if either one can secure it.
The Suns look for an eighth win in nine games overall and a sixth straight victory at US Airways Center on Thursday night when they host the Jazz in a potential first-round playoff preview.
Phoenix (39-24) went nearly two months (Dec. 1-Jan. 26) without winning three in a row after three separate four-game winning streaks during the first month of the season, but has gotten back on track of late.
One game out of a playoff spot on Jan. 27, the Suns have since gone 13-3 to pull into the West’s No. 5 slot - one-half game behind Utah (38-22). They’ve won seven of eight and have limited opponents to 92.0 points per game - 11.2 below their season average - while winning five straight at home.
That doesn’t mean Phoenix’s offense is taking a back seat. Amare Stoudemire finished with 30 points and 14 rebounds and the visiting Suns scored 70 second-half points Wednesday in a 127-101 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers.
“Everybody’s putting in a lot of hard work, and it’s showing,” Stoudemire said. “Right now we’re getting to the point where we’re becoming a heck of a defensive team.”
While the Suns embarrassed the Clippers on their home floor, Utah was unable to do the same Monday. The Jazz fell behind Los Angeles by 17 points in the fourth quarter. They mounted a late rally, but came up short and lost 108-104.
Utah fell to 6-10 in games decided by five points or fewer, with three of those defeats coming in Jerry Sloan’s club’s last five games.
“You’re going to have 10 or 15 games that you look back on after the season and say maybe you should have won those,” Sloan said. “But the other teams have those games as well, so you can’t worry about those games once they’re over. I automatically forget - because I can’t remember.”
Though the Jazz were unable to rally from 17 points down in Los Angeles, that’s exactly what they did when the Suns visited Salt Lake City on Jan. 25.
Phoenix hit 13 3-pointers and built a 96-79 lead with 2:38 left in the third quarter before Utah began its comeback. Rookie Wesley Matthews(notes) scored 15 of his season-high 21 points from that point on, and Andrei Kirilenko(notes) scored 10 of his 25 down the stretch as the Jazz pulled away for a 124-115 win.
“It was almost like bait,” said Matthews, who has averaged 10.3 points in seven starts since the Jazz dealt Ronnie Brewer(notes) to Memphis. “We kind of fell into their trap for the first three quarters. We were able to withstand their run and get back to doing what we were doing.”
Deron Williams(notes) has been in a shooting slump (39.8 percent) since Brewer was traded, but he’s not having trouble finding his teammates. Williams has had 10 consecutive double-digit assist games overall, and six in a row against Phoenix.
Suns star Steve Nash(notes) leads the league with 11.2 assists per game and has hit double digits in 14 of his last 15. He had 15 points and 15 assists in the January meeting with Utah, but was overshadowed by his backup. Goran Dragic(notes) had a career-high 32 points, and hit 6 of 7 from long distance.
These teams meet again in Phoenix on March 19 before closing the regular season in Salt Lake City on April 14.