Cleveland • For the second straight year, the Utah Jazz find themselves in the hunt for one of the Western Conference’s playoff spots. Only this time, the Jazz get to operate from a position of strength.
For however much longer that lasts.
The Jazz have lost four of their last five games and are fading fast as the Los Angeles Lakers attempt to overcome a lifetime’s worth of drama compacted into the first three months of the season.
A year ago, in the lockout-shortened 66-game season, the Jazz were the chasers, winning their final five games to sneak in as the eighth seed. This time, with 22 games left in the regular season, the Jazz are being chased.
“You like to be in a position where you control your own destiny,” coach Tyrone Corbin said. “We have the spot now; we’re not chasing to get a spot.”
Where last year’s Jazz locked down, the current collection of Jazz players has loosened its grip on its position.
Entering Tuesday, the Jazz were two games ahead of the Lakers for eighth place, half a game behind Houston for seventh and one and a half out of sixth.
While the Jazz are, presently, in a stronger position than the Lakers, Utah feels the same urgency as a year ago.
“It’s the same thing,” guard Gordon Hayward said. “We’re chasing teams in front of us, trying to move up in position. It’s so close you just have to play each game like you lose and you could be going home.”
The Jazz play four of their next five games on the road, including Wednesday at Cleveland. A bad performance over the next week or so, and the Jazz could find themselves in need of similar late-season heroics.
Paul Millsap remembers them well.
“We was just determined,” he recalled Monday after the Jazz lost 109-108 to the Bucks in overtime. “We fought, we fought every game. We felt like we could win every game, we locked down mentally and we figured it out. That’s what we’ve got to do right now. We’ve got to lock down to get where we’re trying to go.”
With up to nine players entering free agency this offseason, this is almost certainly the final opportunity for the Jazz to see what this group — an attractive blend of proven veterans and burgeoning talent — can do before it separates.
The Jazz will likely get a boost when point guard Mo Williams returns to the lineup, expected to be as early as Wednesday, after undergoing surgery on his thumb on Jan. 3.
“We’re learning,” Corbin said. “It’s a different group of guys. We’re learning our way through some of these, where guys are getting the experience as we go.”
At full health, the Jazz have three new players in their starting lineup: Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye.
“Devin [Harris] was different with Paul and Al,” Corbin said. “We played a lot of minutes in those situations, and we had Gordon out there with more veteran guys. So, we’re younger right now and as we go through it and we’re kind of learning on the fly a little bit.”
For Al Jefferson, though, the differences between the Jazz of last year and this year’s team are moot. The objective, he said, is the same.
“Last year,” he said, “we had to win games to get in. This year we’ve got to win games to stay in. No matter how you look at it, we still got to win games.”
• A year ago, the Jazz scrapped to reach the playoffs — this year, they’re fighting to hold on to the No. 8 seed.
• They could fall out of the playoff picture if they don’t win in the next five games.
• The Jazz hold the No. 8 spot, just ahead of the Lakers, but are just 1½ games out of sixth.
Jazz at Cavaliers
O At Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland)
Tipoff • Wednesday, 5 p.m.
TV • ROOT
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Utah 32-28; Cleveland 20-40
Season series • Jazz 1-0
About the Jazz • In the teams’ first meeting, Al Jefferson grabbed a double-double and Randy Foye led the Jazz with 20 points in a 109-98 win on Jan. 19. ... Al Jefferson is listed as doubtful and Mo Williams is listed as “out,” but could play depending on his status following Wednesday’s shootaround. ... Derrick Favors tied a career high with 23 points and added 15 rebounds in the Jazz’s 109-108 overtime loss to Milwaukee on Monday.
About the Cavaliers • After missing three games with a hyperextended right knee, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving scored 22 points in 36 minutes as the Cavs lost to the Knicks on Monday. ... Irving leads Cleveland with 23.3 points and 5.7 assists per game. ... After opening the season 10-32, the Cavs have won 10 of 18 games since their last matchup with the Jazz.