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IF ONLY THE JAZZ COULD HAVE BEGUN PLAYOFFS AGAINST LAKERS

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More and more, it is becoming obvious that the the Phoenix Suns are quickly emerging as No. 1 on the Utah Jazz's nemesis list. The torment continued Wednesday night, when the Jazz lost another playoff game to the Suns, this one by a 120-105 score.

One more defeat and the Jazz are out of the playoffs; and since the next game is again in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the Jazz haven't won in four years, nobody is striking up a "Beat L.A." cheer.Nobody on the Jazz's side, at any rate. As for Phoenix's fans, they were chanting "Beat L.A." in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game - already looking ahead to an expected second-round playoff date with the Lakers.

The Suns fans were, in their own way, paraphrasing those memorable words of Denver sports writer Woodrow Paige, Jr.: "Stick a fork in the Jazz. They're done."

Paige wrote that line in the Denver Post six years ago, when the Jazz were in their first-ever playoff series against the Denver Nuggets and were in precisely the predicament they now find themselves in with the Suns - down by a 2-1 count and facing Game 4 (Friday) on the visitor's court.

Paige's quote served as a rallying cry for the Jazz back then, spurring them onto a 121-117 win over the Nuggets in front of a stunned McNichols Arena crowd. When the best-of-5 series returned to the Salt Palace for the conclusive Game 5, the fork was in the Nuggets, who fell by 16.

But that was then and this is now, and those '84 Denver Nuggets hardly had the kind of psychological hold the Suns have been exerting over the Jazz.

Wednesday's Game 3 was another typical chapter/nightmare in the series. The Jazz played hard early, played very hard in the third quarter, and were rewarded with a nine-point lead, 69-60, with eight minutes left in the period.

Then the Suns ran up 30 points in the next eight minutes, outscoring the Jazz 30-12 to take a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter.

Bewildered, the Jazz never recovered.

The quickness, versatility and maneuverability of the Suns seems not to be the greatest complement for the Jazz's game, which, even when it's on the run, has always tended to be more structured.

Confirming the above suspicion Wednesday night was Phoenix forward Kurt Rambis.

Rambis has seen the Jazz from a number of perspectives over the past three seasons - as a member of, in order, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Charlotte Hornets and now the Suns.

He was integrally involved in the Jazz's most memorable playoff series ever - Jazz-Lakers in 1988, when the Lakers needed seven tough games to get past the Jazz.

And, with 23 rebounds and nine points through three games, he's integrally involved in this current series.

"The Jazz are playing hard, and they're playing well," said Rambis, invoking a measure of diplomacy after Wednesday's game, "But I think this team (the Suns) causes them more problems than the Lakers team I played on.

"Here, everything is predicated so much on our quickness. In L.A. we kept wanting to take it inside. We had Worthy and Jabbar and that's what we did best. K.J. (Kevin Johnson) does a better job of disrupting (John) Stockton than Magic (Johnson). He creates so many different things.

"Matchup-wise, I'd say we present more problems for the Jazz than the Lakers."

It's a situation that hasn't made for pleasant sleeping conditions for the Jazz all season long _ they're 2-6 against the Suns since last fall, counting exhibitions, regular season and playoffs _ and is making rest all but impossible at the moment.

It's just the Jazz's luck that they've had to open the playoffs against a team that has antidotes for most of the things they like to do best.

"It's not over yet," said the Jazz's Thurl Bailey, whose 30 points Wednesday flew in the face of the Suns' supposed invincibility. They certainly couldn't stop him.

But it's only one game from over. And the way the Suns' crowd was reacting Wednesday the Jazz are as good as done.

Who knows? The Jazz may concede to a genuine nemesis on Friday night and call it a year.

On the other hand, they may wax indignant, as they did in Denver six years ago, and, inspired and incensed, win Friday's game and send the series back to Salt Lake City for a decisive fifth game on Sunday.

If they do manage to dodge defeat and go on to meet the Lakers, at least they'll know it will get easier, not tougher.