Karl Malone did a dangerous thing in his first three NBA seasons by improving in the second half of every year. Now that the Mailman's numbers are down since January of this season, everybody wants to know what's wrong. Are those minutes taking a toll? Is Malone fading as the playoffs approach?

Mostly, Malone shakes off the suggestion. "I wouldn't say I'm wearing down at all," he says.Still, he wonders about the effect of playing all those minutes. "You can feel it sometimes," he admits. "Your mind wants to do it, but your body doesn't have anything left. You're going to have games like that, and there's nothing you can do about it. It could be hurting me down the line, but I can't worry about that now."

Other teams are giving him enough to worry about these days. Defenders are running at Malone and forcing him to give up the ball more often while fouling him less, accounting for his slight scoring dropoff. Mark Eaton's improved rebounding and Mike Brown's increased playing time have made fewer rebounds available to Malone, although Coach Jerry Sloan has recently told him to stay on the boards and not leave so early on the fast break.

Malone still ranks second in the NBA in scoring and fifth in rebounding. More than anything, he just started too well this season, leaving little room for improvement. Last season, his jump in production - from 25.9 to 29.4 points and 10.9 to 13.2 rebounds - was rather amazing as he helped the Jazz to a 28-13 second half.

They're a more modest 20-12 since the halfway point this season, entering tonight's game against the Lakers in the Forum. While Malone is taking only about one shot less per game since January, he is having to adjust to different defenses and is under orders from Sloan to stay inside more - the subject of Sloan's memorable film festival in New Jersey last month.

"He's doing a better job of recognizing what's there for him, and what's not there," says Sloan.

"Now, I wait before I make my move, for two or three guys to come at me," Malone noted. "I have to adjust at the moment. There's no sense taking a bad shot - if they've got two or three guys on me, someone is open."

John Stockton says of the attention on Malone, "I don't envy him."

Of course, Malone has brought all this upon himself in the last two years - the toughest part is living up to his own standard.