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LIFELESS JAZZ CUT DOWN BY ROCKETS

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If nobody was doing the Jazz any favors in the Midwest Division race, then the Jazz were not going to help anybody, either. Finding nothing to play for themselves Sunday night after learning of San Antonio's win over Phoenix, the Jazz went out and lost 100-88 to Houston in the Summit - sending the Rockets into the Western Conference playoffs and knocking out Seattle.

No Christmas presents from the SuperSonics this year.That's OK with the Jazz's Karl Malone, not looking to make any friends in Seattle. "I would hate to depend on anybody else to win a ball game to get into the playoffs," the Mailman said. "I have no sympathy for anyone playing on the bubble."

Coach Jerry Sloan played the game straight, but his players visibly lacked interest in the season-ender, although Thurl Bailey said, "We definitely wanted to go out and play well."

Early in the third quarter, Sloan turned to his assistants and said disgustedly, "We don't want to win the game." Later, Sloan observed, "I know how it is - sometimes, you can't do it."

So having lost eight of 13 games to close their best season, the Jazz (55-27) will regroup for a best-of-five playoff series with Phoenix, opening Friday and Sunday in the Salt Palace. Houston draws the L.A. Lakers.

The Rockets almost played themselves out of the playoffs by losing at home in overtime to Denver and by one point at Dallas. "You wouldn't believe how relieved I am," said Coach Don Chaney.

Malone scored 20, while Akeem Olajuwon's 28 points and Vernon Maxwell's 27 carried the Rockets (41-41) into the playoffs.

While Houston had a chance for the last playoff shot because Seattle lost to Golden State 124-122 Sunday afternoon, the game became meaningless in the Jazz's playoff picture when San Antonio defeated Phoenix. San Antonio clinched the No. 2 Western Conference seed, while also knocking Phoenix down to No. 5 and giving the No. 4 Jazz a homecourt advantage against the Suns.

The Jazz learned the Spurs' result by watching the CBS telecast of Boston-Philadelphia, including updates from San Antonio. "I didn't really have high hopes, considering everything they had to play for," noted Mark Eaton. "At this point, it was really out of our control."

Over the last seven games of the season, the Jazz lost four games in the standings to the Spurs to finish alone in second place.

"I don't think we lost it; the other team won it," insisted Sloan.

A few hours after the Spurs-Suns game, the Jazz and Rockets were in the Summit locker rooms, watching the Seattle-Golden State game. Before taking the court against the Jazz, the Rockets were already celebrating. "We could hear them whooping and hollering," said Eaton.

That provided a little incentive for the Jazz, besides trying to tie San Antonio in the standings and finish respectably. So the Jazz went out and played interestedly for a while before settling into a sloppy condition. The only real suspense for Jazz followers was wondering when John Stockton would break his NBA season-assists record. Stockton only needed six assists but had foul trouble in the first half and actually had more turnovers (six) than assists (five). Finally, the record-breaker came on a driving feed to Thurl Bailey for a dunk early in the third quarter.

As always, Stockton claimed not to have known about the record until somebody mentioned the subject just before the game, and he welcomed the lack of attention. "I could concentrate more on playing," he said.

With Stockton on the bench with two quick fouls, the Jazz led by six points late in the first quarter before going almost six minutes without a score. Thanks to 11 straight points, the Rockets went on to a 50-41 halftime lead.

If the Jazz - and Seattle - were still in the game by halftime, they were long gone after three quarters. The Jazz needed a late flurry to score 15 points in the period, trailing 71-56.

After cutting the lead to 10 midway through the fourth quarter, the Jazz gave up eight straight points and Sloan reluctantly benched his five regulars for the last 3:45.

If San Antonio had lost to Phoenix, the Jazz would have had a shot at the Midwest title - but they'd also have had to win, or else face Phoenix this week on the road. We'll never know how they might have responded in that situation, or how Houston would have played with nothing at stake.

"I thought we went out there and tried to take care of business, but Houston was really pumped up," said Eaton.

In any case, the Jazz punched their time cards for the 82nd night and came home this morning to start practicing for the playoffs. By Friday, they ought to look a little more interested.

JAZZ NOTES: The Jazz won their final game last season before losing three straight in the playoffs . . . With no steals Sunday, Stockton finished second in the NBA to Michael Jordan . . . In the last nine days of the season, the Jazz lost four games to Texas teams . . . Delaney Rudd made four 3-pointers and scored 15 points in 18 minutes.