Two teams trying to retain the No. 4 seeds in their respective conferences will square off in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night when the Utah Jazz host the Chicago Bulls.
Neither team has played to their full potential in recent games – each lost Monday night – and neither wants to escape a top-four berth as the playoffs approach in less than a month.
The Dallas Mavericks edged out the Jazz at 42-26, with Utah losing four of seven, including a heartbreaking 117-111 home loss to Milwaukee on Monday night. The Jazz currently hold the head-to-head tiebreaker (2-1), but the teams play Dallas again later this month.
The Bulls, at 41-27, hold a tenuous half-game lead over No. 5 Boston (41-28) for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Chicago has lost six of eight, including a 112-103 loss at Sacramento on Monday.
Chicago made it interesting against the Kings after falling behind by 20 and then shooting less than one early in the fourth quarter, but Sacramento fended off the visitors’ comeback efforts after that despite solid nights from Zach LaVine (27), Nikola Vucevic (23 points, 10 rebounds) and DeMar DeRozan (21).
Realistically, the Bulls could still find themselves anywhere from the No. 1 seed to No. 7 as they trail first-place Miami by 3½ games and have just a three-and-a-half advantage. games over seventh-place Toronto with 14 games left.
“We need to have these conversations and get our heads together on this home stretch because it’s not going to get any easier,” LaVine said after his loss to Sacramento. “We have to play the right way and have a certain identity. Obviously we didn’t do that tonight. We have to learn from it. Otherwise it’s up to us.”
The Bulls have lost their last three games in Utah, but beat the Jazz at home in October. DeRozan scored 32 goals in that early-season victory.
Utah held a double-digit lead against Milwaukee in the first and third quarters, but Giannis Antetokounmpo sparked a fourth-quarter rally by the Bucks and was left with 30 points and 15 rebounds.
Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz with 29 points and eight assists, but he made a few critical errors in the final minutes – and the Jazz, who were trailing by just a bucket with 22 seconds remaining, missed six of his last seven shots.
“We made mistakes, we missed shots and turnovers,” Mitchell said. “They are champions for a reason.”
On the good side of the Jazz, Mike Conley came out of a slump for his best game in a while. He also scored 29 on 10 of 13 shooting with seven assists. He had scored just 18 points on 5 of 34 shooting in his previous four outings.
“The most important thing that he and I have talked about is continuing to be aggressive. That’s what happened tonight,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “You know, whether the ball goes or not. We need that from him. And he gave it to us.”
Both teams are going through a tough time. The Jazz host the Clippers on Friday, then embark on a six-game coast-to-coast journey, starting in New York and ending in Los Angeles. The Bulls travel to Phoenix on Friday, face Toronto in Chicago on Monday, then hit the road for five straight games, starting Tuesday in Milwaukee.