Kobe Bryant's last game in Salt Lake City will be a pretty big deal for the Utah Jazz as well.
Seeking to maintain their hold on a playoff spot, the Jazz begin a critical homestand Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers as they host Bryant for the final time.
Vying for just their second postseason berth since falling to the Bryant-led Lakers in the 2010 conference semifinals, the Jazz have climbed to seventh in the West by winning seven of nine. Their grasp remains tenuous as they return home for a three-game stay, however, with ninth-place Dallas still one game back.
The NBA's second-lowest scoring team, Utah (36-37) has compensated for its offensive deficiencies by excelling on the defensive end during its surge. It's held opponents to 89.7 points and 7.0 makes from 3-point range - both league bests - in its nine games since March 11.
Utah was stingy again in its most recent outing, limiting Minnesota to 10 first-quarter points and 38.1 percent shooting overall to close a grueling five-game trip with Saturday's 93-84 win.
The Jazz also struggled to score in their third road game in four days, but broke out with a 33-point fourth quarter to earn their third win on the trek. Gordon Hayward, held to two points over the first three quarters, scored 16 on 6-of-9 shooting during the fourth.
"The early part of the game we weren't scoring, but we were defending. And that's just what we've tried to say: 'Let's just guard, let's guard, let's guard, and eventually find a way to score,'" coach Quin Snyder said. "Not only did we score, we got a little hot there. Gordon, in particular, found his rhythm and gave us some buckets."
Utah has used its defensive prowess to win both previous meetings with cold-shooting Los Angeles (15-58) this season. The Lakers, last in the NBA in 3-point percentage (31.7), were 3 of 21 from beyond the arc in an 86-74 home loss on Jan. 10 and shot 34.4 percent overall in a 109-82 defeat in Salt Lake City six days later.
Rudy Gobert was a major factor in the last matchup, compiling 18 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots to help the Jazz hold Los Angeles to 28 points in the paint.
Bryant had just five points in 15 minutes that night and missed the first meeting with an Achilles injury. Utah's arena hasn't been one of the retiring superstar's favorite facilities, as Bryant's 41.5 field goal percentage in 28 career regular-season games there is his lowest of any West venue.
The 37-year-old turned back the clock with a 28-point performance in Friday's 116-105 loss to Denver and had 17 in 23 minutes Sunday against Washington. However, the Lakers mustered only 32 between the second and third quarters after building an early 12-point lead in a 101-88 defeat.
"Even with the good start, I just didn't feel we had any zip (Sunday) at all," coach Bryon Scott said after his team's third consecutive loss and seventh in eight games. "For 48 minutes I just didn't see it, for whatever reason."
One positive over the last two losses has been the performances of Los Angeles' two expected future stars. D'Angelo Russell had 22 points on Sunday despite playing through an ankle sprain, while Julius Randle notched his first triple-double with 13 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists against Denver.
The teams will close out the regular season in Los Angeles on April 13 in Bryant's final game.