Jazz 82, Rockets 69

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP)—The Utah Jazz don’t want to know what the competition is doing as they push toward the playoffs.

The Jazz beat the Houston Rockets 82-69 Saturday, keeping pace with Denver for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with two games remaining.

“Just try to think about basketball. I don’t want to think about Denver,” said Andrei Kirilenko, who had 15 points and eight rebounds to lead Utah. “We win two games, we’ll be in the playoffs.”

Actually, it’s not quite that simple. The Jazz and Nuggets have identical 42-38 records. Utah would need two wins and a Denver loss because the Nuggets hold the tiebreaker over the Jazz with a 3-1 edge in the series.

But the Nuggets still face Sacramento at home and San Antonio on the road— two teams in the running for the top spot in the conference.

The Jazz face Minnesota, which leads the West, and Phoenix, which is out of the playoffs.

“I hope that our players can learn how to play games and just let it all out,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. “I think we’ve gotten a little cautious at times, rather than just play free and easy. And these are the things that hopefully they can learn playing in games that are so-called important games.”

After getting beaten badly at Dallas 117-94 Thursday night, the Jazz found themselves in a three-way tie for eighth when Houston beat Denver and San Antonio beat Portland on Friday.

Houston’s win put the Rockets into the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Although the Rockets started a little slow, they recovered quickly and never let the Jazz pull far away until the very end.

“You can’t break good teams easily,” said Gordan Giricek, who scored Utah’s final seven points to seal the win and finished with 23. “They tried to win the game. We were pushing stronger because we didn’t clinch a playoff spot yet.”

The Jazz got Houston center Yao Ming in foul trouble early and took advantage by outrebounding the Rockets 41-28.

Jarron Collins had nine rebounds, Tom Gugliotta pulled down eight more and Carlos Arroyo scored 13 points for Utah, which guaranteed a winning season with the win. The Jazz didn’t know the outcome of Denver’s 110-100 win over Portland because it was going into overtime as Utah’s game ended.

“You know that if you lose, there won’t be a reason to look at the scoreboard,” said Utah’s Raja Bell, who scored eight. “That’s how I keep my focus.”

Maurice Taylor led Houston with 16 points and Yao and Cuttino Mobley scored 15 apiece. Steve Francis finished with just five points—nearly 12 below his average.

“Basically, I think it was more of us than anything they did,” Francis said. “We should be in a position where we play hard constantly and tonight we didn’t come out with that ‘umph’ like we really wanted to win.”

After leading 46-40 at halftime, the Jazz held Houston to 11 points in the third quarter and took a 62-51 lead into the fourth.

Utah managed to hang on despite missing nine of its first 10 shots in the fourth quarter.

Mobley cut the lead to 65-58 on a 3-pointer with about 5 minutes left, then Yao added two free throws and a baseline jumper to make it 65-62.

The Jazz got a break when Yao was called for goaltending on a shot by Kirilenko which was headed for the rim, giving the Jazz a 67-62 lead with 3:40 remaining. The officials met for a couple of minutes before Luis Grillo signaled that the basket counted.

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy was livid and was still shouting at Grillo a minute later as Kirilenko, who finished with four steals, hit two free throws.

Mobley got Houston to 69-65 on a 3-pointer, but Arroyo answered with a 3with 1:50 remaining after Kirilenko pulled down an offensive rebound.

Notes

Greg Ostertag had seven rebounds off the bench for Utah. … Yao finished with six rebounds, 3.1 below his average. … Mark Jackson and Scott Padgett, who were both with the Jazz last season, played for the Rockets on Saturday. Jackson scored five points and had six assists and Padgett struggled,going 0-for-3 with no points and one rebound.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Houston
M. Jackson M. Jackson
2-2,  5 Pts
3 Rebs, 6 Assists
 Utah
A. Kirilenko A. Kirilenko
4-7,  15 Pts
8 Rebs, 3 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists