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Utah Jazz finally in playoff position, hope to rise in standings thanks to favorable schedule

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s taken a couple of months, but the Utah Jazz are finally in the playoffs.

Well, not actually in the playoffs, but after a steep and steady climb they are in a playoff position in the standings for the first time since early in the season.

If the season ended today, the Jazz would be in the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with their 38-30 record.

After winning Tuesday night — along with five of the six teams bunched together in the middle of the West standings — the Jazz are tied for the No. 8 spot with San Antonio and one game ahead of Denver, which lost to the Los Angeles Lakers late Tuesday night.

Because the Jazz hold the tiebreaker with the Spurs on the basis of three victories and no defeats this year, they would get the final spot at No. 8. The Jazz are also technically tied with the L.A. Clippers for seventh place in the standings, 15½ games behind first-place Houston, but the Clippers have a slightly better percentage .561 to .559 with a 37-29 mark.

The Jazz aren’t talking playoffs yet, preferring the one-game-at-a-time approach and then seeing where everything shakes out four weeks from now.

“One game at a time, you know,” said Rudy Gobert after his 23rd double-double of the season Tuesday against Detroit. “We know we want to make the playoffs and we want to do something in the playoffs. But we can’t push ahead too far, we’ve just got to stay focused.”

However, the Jazz must feel great about their playoff prospects.

Besides finally getting into the top eight after being stuck at No. 10 for more than two months, Utah is just a game and a half behind New Orleans and Minnesota for the No. 5 spot, two games behind Oklahoma City for No. 4 and three-and-a-half behind Portland for No. 3.

While the Jazz would be thrilled just to make the playoffs, a move up to at least No. 6 would be much more advantageous because it would mean they wouldn’t be stuck with a first-round series against one of the West’s two best teams, Houston and Golden State, who have already lapped the field in the West and are the two favorites right now to win the NBA title.

The Jazz have a great chance to move into the top six over the next week with three home games against three of the NBA’s worst teams, beginning Thursday night against Phoenix, followed by Sacramento on Saturday and Atlanta Tuesday.

The Suns come into the game with the second-worst record in the NBA behind Memphis at 19-50 and have lost 21 of their last 23 games, including their last six.

However, in two of their three games against the Jazz, the Suns actually played pretty well. Back on Oct. 25, the Suns led from start to finish in a 97-88 victory in Phoenix. Then a month ago, they stayed with the Jazz until the final minute when they trailed by just five before the Jazz won 107-97. In the other game in early February, the Jazz won easily by 33 points.

Devin Booker and T.J. Warren are the Suns’ top two players at 18.6 ppg and 18.1 ppg, respectively. Elfrid Payton, who joined the team last month in a deal with Orlando, has started all 13 games since arriving and he averages 13.1 points and 7.1 assists at the point guard position.

JAZZ NOTES: Guard Dante Exum is getting closer to returning to the lineup after his shoulder injury last October. Exum had been practicing with the Salt Lake City Stars this week . . . Joe Ingles has surpassed Klay Thompson as the NBA’s top 3-point shooter at 45.1 percent . . . The Jazz rank seventh in the league in 3-point percentage and are tied for 10th in 3-pointers per game . . . Gobert hasn’t played in enough games this year to be qualified among the league’s statistical leaders because of all the games he missed, but he would rank third in blocked shots, fifth in field goal percentage and 11th in rebounding.