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With 51/2 minutes remaining in Thursday night's game with Sacramento, the Jazz were an upset waiting to happen. Mark Eaton was on the bench, the victim of foul problems and the Kings' quick lineup. Jeff Malone had shot himself out of a hot streak in the second half. The Kings were positioning themselves to make it two in a row at Arco Arena over the Jazz, landing eight of their first 10 shots in the period.

But this was Northern California, where the Mailman is just getting comfortable. On March 3, Malone scored a season-high 44 points at Golden State in a Jazz rout. This time it was a 40-point night, as the Jazz held off the Kings, 114-103."You get in a groove," said the Mailman, "and you think everything's going in."

Try as they might to upset the Jazz for the second time in a season, the Kings are in anything but a groove themselves. Wayman Tisdale is injured, Mitch Richmond simply wants out and the L-Train, Lionel Simmons, can't pull the cargo all alone.

"We're just not that good," said Kings' guard Dennis Hopson. "We're not a good team. We don't know what it takes to win."

Meanwhile, the Jazz seem to be making major strides in the what-it-takes department. They've won five games in a row, beating big and small without regard to talent or win-loss record. Wins have come over Golden State and San Antonio, but also over weaklings like New Jersey, Denver and now the Kings.

"We want to win them all," said the Mailman. "Maybe the statistics would indicate we're better, and you don't always give an exciting effort, but we were sure they'd come back."

If the overall Jazz product was something short of exciting, it was effective. The Mailman had 16 points in the fourth quarter.

His most impressive work came in the final 51/2 minutes, after the Kings cut the lead to 96-94. But the Jazz quickly put it out of reach, scoring the next eight points. Malone got 12 points in the final 6:19, the final three coming on a roll to the basket with 27 seconds to go, drawing a foul.

Malone then shook his shoulders and slapped hands with teammates - a new custom he's been using to indicate the game is officially iced.

"I heard they have good fishing holes here," said Malone, ever on the outlook for a place to practice his favorite pastime. "I guess I've started to get accustomed to the atmosphere over here."

"Fortunately," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, "we had him (Malone) to go to."

The lowly Kings, 20-43, appear headed to rerun heaven. They've lost six games in a row, have an interim coach (Rex Hughes) and are showing no indication of getting better. With Detroit visiting on Saturday, their chances to shake the slump appears slim.

"Half of the time we don't have a full roster," said Hopson. "But we're not that good, plain and simple."

The prospect of losing in Sacramento again wasn't something the Jazz wanted to consider. After beating Chicago on Feb. 3, they promptly dropped a 100-98 game to the Kings.

Asked if that occurrence was embarrassing, center Mark Eaton said, "Yeah. Even though we were without two players (Eaton and Jeff Malone), we fell apart at the end."

Jeff Malone made six of his first seven shots, but tailed off, making only two of his next eight.

Utah's lead rose to 16 points in the third quarter, but Richmond's eight points led a respectable comeback. Sacramento went with Richmond, Hopson, Pete Chilcutt, Simmons and Randy Brown during most of the comeback run, but never tied the score.

"Our plan was to win," said Hughes, "and to do that you need smaller people on the floor."

The Jazz lead was down to 12 by the end of the third period and two with 5:33 to go in the game.

After playing three straight lottery teams, the Jazz now have more serious concerns. Saturday they meet at San Antonio, before moving on to Houston on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the Jazz were careful not to mention Sacramento's awful record. "The good teams make a run and they made one," said Malone.

But the good teams usually also win, which is something Sacramento isn't doing at all.