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JAZZ READY TO PLAY FOR REAL AFTER BOWING TO PHOENIX

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By now, the Jazz will try almost anything in hopes of winning a regular-season opener for a change. Monday night in the Huntsman Center, they completed their first losing preseason (3-4) since 1982, which could be the good news for a team that's lost on Opening Night all those same years.

"Friday is when I start getting paid," forward Karl Malone said after a 99-92 loss to Phoenix.Friday is when the Denver Nuggets visit the Salt Palace, starting the six-month, 82-game Real Thing. A losing exhibition record? "They'll never remember, if we win our first four or five games," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, who even gave his players today off.

Same for Phoenix, which won the last four exhibitions - including two over Detroit, and this one, while point guard Kevin Johnson rested a sore back for the whole second half.

"I've never worried about that," veteran Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said of finshing the preseason strong. "The only thing that counts is in our minds, knowing that we can play."

The Suns proved that all last season, when they won 55 games and reached the Western Conference finals. That happens to be just about what the Jazz have in mind this year, after they played a Midwest Division title into a first-round playoff exit last spring.

They would have played the Suns in the second round, so this meeting was about six months late. Or six weeks early, since they renew a potentially hot rivalry in the Salt Palace Dec. 13.

That game will offer the full flavor of Johnson vs. Stockton. This time, Stockton had 17 points and 12 assists to go with Malone's 24 points and Blue Edwards' 13, while Tom Chambers (Utah '81) led the Suns with 21 points and nine rebounds in his return to the campus.

In the next three days, meanwhile, Sloan has to finalize his playing rotation. The No. 1 issue at the moment is who will be the backup point guard for the few precious minutes in relief of Stockton, now that both Eric Johnson and Jim Les have - apparently - made the team. After the last two players were cut Monday afternoon, Johnson responded with his worst outing of the preseason - 14 minutes, four turnovers.

"It's tough to bring guys along," Sloan noted. "Some guys don't play very well when they get the opportunity. They're a little uptight."

Les stayed on the bench for the second straight game, a coaching move that could be read different ways. "We'll see where we are," is about all Sloan is saying about the position for now.

Another question is whether Eric Leckner or Mike Brown will play regularly as the backup center.

With Kevin Johnson out of the game, Stockton was working mostly against 5-foot-7 rookie Greg Grant in the third quarter, and the Jazz rallied from being down 52-47 at halftime - when they'd made 8 of 22 free throws, including Malone's 1 of 8.

"Maybe I wasn't concentrating, I don't know," said the Mailman, who threw his arms into the air after finally connecting on his first try of the third quarter, drawing a big cheer from the crowd of 13,463.

Just when the Jazz were charging ahead, though, three straight turnovers allowed the Suns to come back. "We can't afford to have spells like that," said Sloan.

In the fourth quarter, the Jazz were down 89-85 after a Stockton drive, but went three trips without a score and the Suns slowly pulled away.

That was all for preseason '89, and just in time, if you ask the Mailman. "You want to win 'em, but you're not going to lose any sleep over it," Malone said. Friday - at the soonest - the sleep-losing starts.