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Jazz-Nuggets Preview

The Houston Rockets have been the gift that keeps on giving for the Utah Jazz as they pursue their first playoff berth in four years.

The Jazz caught a break when the Rockets dropped two in a row this week, but with Houston hosting a favorable matchup Sunday, the Jazz probably need a win against the Denver Nuggets to maintain sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference.

Although Utah (39-40) was handed two tough results at home this week, losing a tight battle with San Antonio 88-86 on Tuesday before falling 102-99 in overtime to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, it remains one game ahead of Houston in the standings.

The Rockets, who have lost three of four, have a great chance to pick up a win with a home matchup against the 16-63 Lakers, whom they've beaten three times this season by an average of 22 points, so it appears crucial for the Jazz to again handle Denver.

Houston has a slightly more favorable final two games with a visit to Minnesota and a home matchup against Sacramento, while the Jazz have to contend with seventh-place Dallas at home before visiting the Lakers.

"We got to move on from this one," Gordon Hayward said after Friday's loss. "We've got a three-game season coming up. I think that's the way we've got to look at it. We have to win each one of these next three games if we want to get in.

"You go from there and you just put this one behind you."

The Nuggets (33-27), who are well out of the playoff race, lost the first three meetings with Utah this season while scoring an average of 84.3 points, which marks the second lowest the Jazz have allowed against a West opponent this season.

Another win will not only help Utah's playoff push but also mark its first season sweep of Denver since 2002-03 - when Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton were still working that perfect pick-and-roll in the Jazz starting lineup.

The guard-forward tandem this time is Rodney Hood and Hayward, and though no one will ever compare them to Stockton and Malone, they've been instrumental down the stretch for Utah during an 11-7 span since a five-game skid Feb. 25-March 4.

Hayward, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds against the Clippers, has played in 16 of those games and averaged 20.2 points in the nine wins and 15.7 in the seven losses, so getting him good looks will be key in the club's final three games.

The agile forward has gotten plenty of good looks against the Nuggets this season with 62 total points on 20-of-42 shooting. He's played clean basketball with a 4.00 assist-to-turnover ratio and hit 16 of 17 free throws in the three meetings.

Denver may be simply playing out the string before watching the playoffs from the living room, but during a season in which two West powers have been smashing records, the Nuggets claimed a unique distinction with a 102-98 win over San Antonio on Friday.

Sure, every Spurs starter took the night off except Tim Duncan, but Denver ended a 10-game skid in the series and is now the only team to have beaten San Antonio and Golden State this season. The Nuggets, who have been experimenting with their lineup with an eye on the future, beat the Warriors 112-110 at home on Jan. 13.

"That's a pretty cool accomplishment," guard Gary Harris said. "But we still have a lot of ways to improve. I'm happy with the way everyone is progressing."

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