Jazz on the road again to start playoffs

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(Photo courtesy Deseret News) SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Instead of opening the playoffs at home, the Jazz are headed east over the Rocky Mountains for a series against division rival Denver.

The Nuggets were the Jazz's nemesis this season, winning the first three meetings before Utah avoided a sweep by winning in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6.

The Nuggets even won once without stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups -- in Utah -- and their 3-1 record against Utah gave Denver the tiebreaker when both teams finished the season 53-29. So Denver is the Northwest Division champion and gets to host the first two games of the series Saturday and Monday.

"Hopefully we can do a better job against them than we did in the regular season," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "We'll see what happens."

The Jazz could have clinched home-court advantage by beating Phoenix on Wednesday, but flopped in a 100-86 loss to the Suns in the final regular season game for both clubs. So instead of finishing with the No. 3 seed in the West, the Jazz are fifth and stuck in a bracket with the Nuggets -- and the possibility of having to face the top-seeded Lakers in the second round for whoever gets through.

The Lakers, who play Oklahoma City in the first round, have knocked the Jazz out of the playoffs the last two years.

"You can't worry about anybody else or anything else except Denver. That's the team we've got to play," Sloan said.

The Jazz haven't opened the playoffs at home since 2001.

Sloan gave his players Thursday off after back-to-back late games Tuesday and Wednesday, giving the Jazz a chance to recover mentally from the disappointment of getting routed by the Suns and another day to heal from injuries.

Forward Carlos Boozer didn't play Wednesday, still out with a strained muscle in his rib cage that he suffered early in a win at Golden State on Tuesday.

If Boozer can't go, the Jazz could be in trouble. He led the team in scoring (19.5 points) and rebounding (11.2) during the regular season and his absence was obvious as the Jazz struggled to get inside on the Suns.

"We need Booz out there on the floor. They have to pay a lot of attention to him, which opens up a lot of things for everybody else," said Deron Williams, who had 24 points Wednesday but just six assists as he took over the scoring burden when the Jazz fell way behind. "It seemed like they were just sitting in the lane, waiting on me."

The Jazz have also been without forward Andrei Kirilenko for much of the last month because of a strain in his left calf. Kirilenko said at the beginning of the week he was feeling closer to a return, but still sat out Tuesday and Wednesday.

Opening the playoffs without their top two forwards could put the Jazz in a serious hole early against the Nuggets, who recovered enough from stumbling through late March to be in position to claim the division when the Jazz faltered at the very end.

"If you want to feel sorry for yourself, just hang on to that," Sloan said. "Somebody's hurt. That's a great excuse, but these other guys get paid -- first through 15th. It's up to them to try to do their job and do it the best they can.

"We're not asking them to try and score 40 points or 30. Just try and play and be effective as much as you can," Sloan said. "As long as they stay together, they'll be pretty competitive."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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DOUG ALDEN Sports Writer


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