Utah 103, Milwaukee 90

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SALT LAKE CITY (TICKER) —The Utah Jazz have set their sights on home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Matt Harpring scored 22 of his 28 points in the third quarter as the Jazz held off the slumping Milwaukee Bucks, 103-90, to match a season high with their sixth straight victory.

Utah also won six straight in late November to overcome a 1-4 start.

“We’re just executing,” said Harpring, who twisted his ankle late in the third quarter and scored only one point in the fourth period. “We play well together, we are passing the ball, and we’re playing defense. When we put everything together, we can be a tough team to beat.”

Currently sixth in the Western Conference, Utah climbed within two games of fourth-place Minnesota, which suffered a surprising loss at Miami on Friday. The top four teams in each conference have the home-court edge in the opening round of the playoffs.

However, Utah coach Jerry Sloan does not want his team to get complacent and still questions its toughness.

“We have a difficult time trying to stop people on a man-to-man defense,” he said. “We have had to go to zone a couple times. We don’t have the concentration to be tough enough right. That is my biggest concern - toughness.”

Milwaukee lost for the eight time in 11 contests and remained one-half game behind Washington in the battle for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Wizards lost at to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

“In the first half we had a nice flow, a nice control of the game,” Milwaukee coach George Karl said. “In the second half Utah came out Matt and (Andrei) Kirilenko just got a great deal of energy and offensively, they exploded on us.”

The Jazz, who shot 52 percent (39-of-75) from the field, opened their biggest lead, 83-65, on Greg Ostertag’s dunk with 10:40 remaining before the Bucks closed to 89-81 on Tim Thomas’ 3-pointer with 6:23 left.

But Karl Malone, who scored 18 points, hit a 20-footer on Utah’s next possession to stop Milwaukee’s run. Kirilenko added 19 off the bench.

“Six in a row, it’s a big deal,” Kirilenko said. “We’ll rolling, we feel we’re in good shape.”

Michael Redd scored 26 points and Gary Payton added 19 for the Bucks. Milwaukee shot only 41 percent (34-of-83) but made 10-of-20 3-pointers.

“We fought back and did some good things in the fourth quarter but generally, the third quarter and Harpring killed us,” Karl said.

“We’ve gotta win,” Payton added. “We’ve got to buckle down. People have to understand this a game and that we’ve got to win. It’s as simple as that.”

The contest was close throughout the first half before Milwaukee settled for a 43-42 lead at the intermission. But Harpring took over in the third quarter, helping the Jazz outscore the Bucks, 35-22, and take a 77-65 lead into the final period.

Harpring made 10-of-16 shots, including 3-of-5 3-pointers, and also grabbed 10 rebounds.

“I just caught a rhythm,” he said. “My teammates got me the ball and I was just knocking down shots. A quarter like that happens every now and then. It’s just too bad that I twisted my ankle.”

“In my opinion, he’s (Harpring) the most improved player in the league,” Kirilenko said. “Right now, he’s a real leader of the team like Karl and John (Stockton), and he plays my position.”

With Harpring leading the way, Utah shot 80 percent in the third quarter, making 12-of-15 shots. Harpring converted eight of his nine shots in the third, falling three points shy of Malone’s team record for points in a quarter.

“He (Harpring) obviously came out very aggressively,” Stockton said. “He made few shots to start out. I think Matt set a little bit of a tone.”

After eight ties and 18 lead changes, the Jazz closed the third quarter with a 15-5 run. Harpring’s 3-pointer started the spurt and gave Utah a 65-60 lead.

“We played good basketball, I’d say for three quarters,” Redd said. “In the third quarter and at the beginning of the fourth, they got a little bit of separation on us. You’ve got to give them credit. They fought hard the whole 48 minutes, and we came out a little bit short.”

Desmond Mason and Tim Thomas contributed 12 points apiece for the Bucks.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Milwaukee
T. Kukoc T. Kukoc
3-8,  9 Pts
7 Rebs, 5 Assists
 Utah
M. Harpring M. Harpring
10-16,  28 Pts
10 Rebs, 3 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists