Preview: Utah Jazz (31-24) at Phoenix Suns (26-26)

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Phoenix Suns 102, Utah Jazz 101

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PHOENIX — A .500 basketball team by definition is inconsistent enough to both win and lose half its games.

That has been the Phoenix Suns’ season in a nutshell, as a squad that has been good enough to beat the Lakers, Hawks, Jazz (twice) and Knicks on the road and Celtics, Hornets, Nuggets and Blazers at home is also the only NBA team to be felled twice by the Sacramento Kings.

This team is so unpredictable that right when they appear to be dead they come from behind to defeat New Jersey to kickstart a five-game winning streak or dominate the Celtics to start a 6-1 stretch and right when they appear to have figured things out they drop a heartbreaker in Detroit or lose to the Kings.

With 30 games left, the Suns may yet be consistent in something other than inconsistency, and to that end Tuesday night’s contest against the Utah Jazz is a huge one.

The Suns trail the Jazz — tied with Portland for the No. 6 seed — by 3 1/2 games, but  they are just two games out in the loss column. A win in this one cuts that deficit to one, and the Suns already own the tiebreaker by virtue of their two wins in Utah.

The Suns are lucky in that many other Western Conference teams have struggled with consistency throughout the year as Denver has slid to the No. 8 slot just one up in the loss column and the triumvirate of Portland, Utah and Denver can all be caught with a good stretch of basketball although the Suns must jump over Memphis first before looking at those teams.

“We’re trying to catch teams that all win,” head coach Alvin Gentry said. “We’re trying to catch anybody, any of eight teams we are trying to catch.  But we’ve got to leap frog a couple of other teams to even think about getting in to the eight spot.”

The Suns will benefit from the absence of Andrei Kirilenko, who will sit this one out after spraining his right ankle Friday against Phoenix. Raja Bell (strained calf) and Ronnie Price (sprained toe) are both game-time decisions.

The Jazz often go as Kirilenko goes, and we saw that Friday night as he put up a plus 17 in 13 minutes of work, whereas backup small forward Gordon Hayward lost 23 points in 30 minutes.

The Suns have some positive injury news of their own as backup point guard Goran Dragic is expected to return from his foot injury against Utah after missing the previous seven games. Zabian Dowdell has more or less done a solid job as the backup point guard, but the offense has stalled at times as it did during the beginning of Sunday’s fourth quarter. For that game Dowdell was a minus eight in 11 minutes, so it will be nice to get The Dragon back.

With Jerry Sloan gone and the Tyrone Corbin era upon us, the Suns need to take advantage of a time in which the Jazz are in flux a bit, as we saw during their second-half meltdown on Friday. Sloan’s absence could also portend a fall from a playoff spot for a Utah team that has been stumbling and bumbling since starting a six-game losing streak on Jan. 17.

But the Suns can’t worry about other teams. If they don’t become more consistent themselves, it won’t matter what the rest of the West does.

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