SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell tries not to pay too much attention to the standings when preparing for games. It's a measured thought process to help treat each game and each team the same. But that's often easier said than done, especially when the matchup happens to be No. 1 vs. No. 2.
"This is a big one: 1 seed vs. 2 seed — you try not to look at those things, but it's hard not to," Mitchell said.
Wednesday's matchup against the Phoenix Suns pits together the two surprise teams of the league. Ahead of the season, the Jazz were often slated to finish around the fifth spot in the West with the Suns regularly coming in just behind them, but the two teams have blown the projections away through the first 50 games of the season. They don't just have the top two records in the league (Utah at 38-12; Phoenix at 35-14), they also have the best net ratings in the association.
So that means both teams are gearing up for a conference finals preview, right? Well, not exactly.
That's not to say the Jazz and Suns have bought into the consensus thought around the league that the LA Clippers and LA Lakers are still the best two teams in the conference (something that could still very well be true), it's just that it's a midweek game in April — six weeks before the playoffs begin.
"I hate to say this, but I don't take too much into it," Suns guard Chris Paul said. "Win or lose, we play these games and you don't know if a team is coming off four (games) in five (days), you don't know if a guy is sick, resting. I think everybody has the same mindset, though. It's the next game on our schedule. We need to go out, play our way to win the game. That's all that matters. Win that game on Wednesday. Nothing else."
That all said, the teams are separated by just 2.5 games in the standings in what is looking more and more like a two-team race for the No. 1 seed in the West. The only real stakes of Wednesday's game have to do with the tiebreaker between the two teams (the Suns can win the regular season series with a victory Wednesday).
That's something that may be more important to the Jazz than the Suns. Utah boasts the best home record in the league at 22-2; the Suns, meanwhile, have the best road record at 17-6.
But there are more similarities than differences between the clubs.
Like the Jazz, Phoenix gets it done on both ends of the court; the Suns have the No. 5 defense in the league to go along with a top 10 offense (Utah is top three in both). The teams are also both led by savvy veteren point guards in Paul and MIke Conley, feature young All-Star scorers in Devin Booker and Mitchell, and both have reliable second units.
"You've got two stars leading the way: Chris Paul and Devin Booker — it's going to be a tough night for anybody," Conley said. "So we just have to watch film, be ready to match their intensity. We know it's going to be a physical game, and a cerebral game with Chris. He's such a smart point guard. So we'll have to go out there and see what we got."
Conley said the Jazz will use this week — with matchups against playoff teams in Dallas, Phoenix and Portland — as a barometer for where they are among the best in the West. He was quick to point out, though, that the results won't mean that much.
"I don't think that our season lives or dies on it but we do understand that the way Phoenix is playing, the way Dallas has been playing lately, the way Portland's playing, these are teams that, if we want to get to our ultimate goal, we're gonna have to beat," Conley said.
So Wednesday's game is important — just not end-of-the-world important. It's something that Royce O'Neale perfectly captured when he was asked if the matchup had any extra sizzle behind it.
"I mean, it's another game. We're gonna treat it as if it was a playoff game," O'Neale said. "I feel like it's gonna be a playoff atmosphere. But, I mean, at the end of the day, it's still a regular season game."
Another game. A playoff game. Or something in between. How important is Wednesday's game? It seems that depends on who you ask.