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Lakers, Jazz gear up for stretch run

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The Utah Jazz were in this position last year and pulled it off. The built-for-championship Lakers never expected to be anywhere close.

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With three weeks remaining, the battle for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth is on.

``If you're competitive, you've got to love this time, this opportunity,'' Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Thursday. ``That's (what makes you) thrive. You're in this fight.''

His Jazz play at Portland on Friday, while the Lakers lost at Milwaukee on Thursday night, leaving them a half-game ahead of Utah.

After that, the Lakers and Jazz each play five teams with winning records. Both have six at home. The Jazz, however, own the tiebreaker, having won the season series 2-1.

Utah also owns the tiebreaker with Dallas, which has crept back into the Western playoff picture. The Lakers had a game lead over Utah (36-36) entering Thursday's action, and a 1 1/2-game lead over the Mavs.

Corbin, whose Jazz won five straight to close last year's strike-shortened season and climb back into the final spot, is more than optimistic.

``I love our chances,'' he said. ``I love this group of guys. ... We've got some tough teams to compete against and it's going to be exciting.''

Both teams are hurting at a critical time.

Lakers forward Metta World Peace was scheduled to undergo knee surgery Thursday that will sideline him at least six weeks. The 33-year-old was averaging 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds, and was replaced in the starting lineup by Jodie Meeks.

The Jazz, meanwhile, had one of their rising stars dislocate his left shoulder in Wednesday night's win over the Phoenix Suns. Enes Kanter, one of Utah's four bigs, is averaging 7.3 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing with the second unit, but the 6-11 second-year pro led the Jazz in scoring in Dallas last week with 17 points.

An MRI on Thursday confirmed Kanter dislocated the shoulder. He didn't travel to Portland for the team's game against the Trail Blazers on Friday night, and team said that he will be out indefinitely.

Last year, the Lakers were the West's third seed but lost in the second round to eventual Western Conference champion Oklahoma City. A bad start, coaching change and myriad injuries have left them trying to hang on this season.

``It's been a trying year and not just for injuries,'' said coach Mike D'Antoni. ``We just can't seem to get any traction but ... nobody's feeling sorry for us. We've got to go out, play as hard as we can and see what happens. If we do that, we should be fine.''

In the Jazz locker room, the giant white board shows the playoff standings.

While Corbin has a number in mind that he thinks it will take to claim the eighth seed, he wasn't saying publicly.

Forward Marvin Williams figures the Jazz will need to win every home game, and go at least .500 in four road contests against Portland, Golden State, Minnesota and Memphis.

``Having so many games at home does give us great confidence,'' Williams said of the Jazz, who are 26-9 in Salt Lake City this season.

The Lakers are 23-12 at home, where they will close out the season against Golden State, San Antonio and Houston - three playoff-bound teams.

While the Lakers work another starter into the lineup, Utah is pleased with the direction the team is going in with Gordon Hayward as a starting small forward. He is averaging 17 points a game over the last seven, and has hit 16 of 29 3-pointers (55 percent) during that span.

He has jump-started the Jazz the last two games, taking some of the pressure off starting center Al Jefferson.

Granted, Utah's last two wins were against lowly Philadelphia and Phoenix.

The Jazz will get a better gauge of where they stand after the next few.

After Friday's game in Portland, they are home Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets and superstar point guard Deron Williams, who will be pumped to face his former team. The Jazz play three more at home next week - Portland, Denver and New Orleans - then close out the season with games at Golden State, against Oklahoma City, home and away against Minnesota then at Memphis.

``It worked out for us last year,'' said Jefferson, the first-round sweep by San Antonio notwithstanding. ``I hope we keep playing hard and keep winning and it will work out for us again.''

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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