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Jazz charge into West's eight playoff spot

The SportsXchange

SALT LAKE CITY -- A week after they'd been counted out of the playoff race by many outsiders, Al Jefferson and the Utah Jazz are hitting their stride.

Jefferson led the Jazz to their fifth straight victory, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 112-102 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

Jefferson, the newly named Western Conference player of the week, hit 12 of 21 shots from the field. Five other Jazz players scored in double figures.

"They said Al Jefferson's player of the week," Jefferson said. "I think the Utah Jazz is the team of the week."

Riding their longest winning streak of the season, the Jazz have improved to 39-36 and moved into sole possession of the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs, a half-game ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (38-36).

Utah's Mo Williams scored 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from 3-point range and had nine assists. Derrick Favors added 18 points and seven rebounds off the bench, and Randy Foye, coming off of an 8-of-9 3-point outing, hit three of six 3-pointers and scored 11 points.

"It feels good. We need to be on this winning streak," said Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, who had 12 points and five rebounds. "There's no time to celebrate. We've got some good guys coming, and we gotta keep winning."

The Jazz have Tuesday off while the Lakers host the Dallas Mavericks, who are only two games behind Utah for that final playoff spot in the West.

Former Jazz guard Wesley Matthews scored 23 points for Portland, which dropped its fifth game in a row, including a 105-95 loss to Utah at home on Friday.

"The turnovers (16) and offensive rebounds (10) just gave them extra possessions, and they were able to take advantage of it," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "(The Jazz) are playing at a good level right now. They are making a playoff push, and I'll give them credit, especially here at home."

Point guard Damian Lillard added 17 points, five rebounds and five assists for the struggling Blazers (33-41), who are all but eliminated from playoff contention.

"I think as competitors, guys want to take on challenges," Lillard said when asked about Portland's desire to finish strong. "That's definitely a challenge because a lot of teams on our schedule are teams that are right on the edge of being in or out of the playoffs. We definitely have an opportunity to be that (spoiler) team."

The Jazz opened an early 14-point lead before Portland rallied to get within three points in the second quarter.

Utah, which led 56-49 at halftime, turned it on in the third quarter.

Williams hit three 3-pointers in the quarter as the Jazz broke the game open, re-establishing a 14-point advantage.

Utah shot a sizzling 54.2 percent from the field, but that was cool compared with the Trail Blazers, who lost despite going 39 of 67 from the field (58.2 percent).

Utah took 16 more shots than Portland and dominated inside with a 52-28 edge in points in the paint. The Jazz had 15 second-chance points to the Blazers' four.

The Blazers played without All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who remained in Portland because of a sprained ankle.

Lillard hit three of seven 3-pointers. During the first quarter, he broke the NBA's rookie record for 3-pointers, passing the Warriors' Stephen Curry, who held the mark of 166. Lillard now has 169.

"It's an honor to be able to do that in my first season," Lillard said, "but I wish I would have done it in a win. It's bittersweet."

NOTES: Jefferson earned Western Conference player of the week honors after helping the Jazz go 4-0 from March 25-31. "It's a great feeling," he said. "It's great to see that I'm player of the week. It's good to see your name in that type of category." Jefferson averaged 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds for the week to land the fifth player of the week award in his nine-year career. ... Lillard had a large group of fans at the game cheering for him. The Rookie of the Year candidate played at Weber State, which is about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City in Ogden. ... Lillard is not the only reason why the Blazers have a familiar look for Utah basketball fans. Three Portland players previously played for the Jazz -- Matthews, Eric Maynor and Sasha Pavlovic.
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