Thursday, February 12, 2009 Updated: February 16, 12:25 PM ET
PER Diem: Feb. 12, 2009
By John Hollinger ESPN.com
With Carlos Boozer set to return from injury soon, the Jazz could make some noise.
SALT LAKE CITY -- I talked about last night's Lakers-Jazz game in terms of its relevance to the Lakers in the Daily Dime, but one thing I didn't get around to was just how huge a win it was for the Jazz.
Utah now goes into the break a game up on Phoenix in the Western Conference playoff standings, and given the additions that Utah is about to make -- Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko are about ready to return from injury -- and the subtractions the Suns are contemplating, it seems highly probable the Jazz will avoid the lottery.
In fact, according to today's Playoff Odds, New Orleans is just as likely as the Jazz to miss the postseason. Of course, the Playoff Odds don't factor in injuries, which have hammered both the Hornets and the Jazz of late. Meaning both teams are likely to be higher than the 7th and 8th seeds in the West when all is said and done.
So, the question for the Jazz might be just how high they can move up over the season's final 29 games. They're a game and a half behind New Orleans, for instance, but the Hornets might be trading Tyson Chandler in the next week, and they still have to cram in a league-high 32 games after the break.
Utah trails Houston by two games, but the Rockets continue to post uneven results amid the is-it-his-knee-or-his-head drama with Tracy McGrady. The Jazz trail Dallas by two as well, but again the Mavs' inconsistent play and recent loss of Jason Terry means that Utah would likely pass them with any kind of sustained run.
If the Jazz can pass those three teams, it would put them in position to face Portland in the first round of the playoffs in the 4 vs. 5 matchup, and that is a very winnable pairing for the Jazz if they're back at full strength.
If that plays out, last night's Jazz-Lakers tilt will be a preview of the Western Conference semis, rather than a 1-vs.-8 first-round matchup as today's standings would suggest. That, in turn, would give us a replay of last year's riveting second-round series, and perhaps justify the faith a certain commentator showed in this club at the start of the season.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Boozer probably won't be back right away, so it's imperative that his sub continues to produce for a while longer. From that perspective, it was real nice to see Paul Millsap show up down the stretch last night.
As I wrote in a previous Per Diem, Millsap has looked exhausted of late, perhaps due to a January knee injury that might not be fully healed. That trend continued during an impact-free first half that featured several botched finishes at the basket and nary a rebound. But Jerry Sloan kept him in the lineup down the stretch, and he responded with 10 points and eight boards after the break, including a key dunk off a feed from Deron Williams that turned into a three-point play thanks to a phantom foul call against Pau Gasol.
Millsap said he's heading back to his native Louisiana to rest up, and all his teammates will be doing the same. Oddly, not a single representative from the Jazz will be participating in All-Star Weekend.
Instead, they'll be gearing up for a post-All-Star break charge. Thanks to last night's win, it doesn't need to be a terribly impressive rally to get them into a much more manageable position in terms of playoff seeding. Just going 20-9 or so would put them at 50 wins and likely into the same No. 5 seed they held a year ago; from there, in turn, dreams of playoff grandeur seem much more attainable.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.