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If you didn't know better, you would have thought it was another loss: Jazz coach Jerry Sloan tersely talking about allowing open lanes to the basket. Players moping around, talking about getting down to business. Dire predictions of troubles to come.

Monday night at the Delta Center, the Jazz dispatched Milwaukee, 120-100 as Jeff and Karl Malone combined for 57 points. It wasn't good enough for Sloan. Spring may have sprung in Salt Lake City, but Sloan would just as soon have the city locked in a deep freeze if it would get his team back on track.After a sorry first-half defensive effort, the Jazz recovered with a decent second half and shot 52 percent for the game as they handed Milwaukee its 21st straight road loss.

What exactly is the Jazz's problem, Sloan contends, has little to do with winning margin and much to do with effort. Certainly the Jazz's first-half defensive effort wasn't pretty. Milwaukee waltzed into the lane for a dozen first-half layups and trailed by only a point at the break. "That's definitely not the kind of basketball we need to play to get ourselves ready for the playoffs," Sloan said.

Sloan also bemoaned the Jazz's penchant for getting into a gunning contest with the Bucks, throwing up a string of quick shots in the second quarter. "We're not going to a fire. We just have to play a basketball game," said Sloan. "I'd rather have the 24-second clock run out than have 18 seconds left."

Undoubtedly the Jazz have reached a crucial point in their season. With the Spurs' loss to New Jersey and the Jazz's win, the Midwest Division race suddenly has some space. The Jazz now lead the Bucks by 51/2 games and need win only five more games to clinch the division title.

All this prosperity has Sloan worried, because his team is playing bad and widening its lead anyway. The Jazz dropped a game at the Delta Center on Friday to the Lakers, then played a sloppy first half against the Bucks before pulling away in the third quarter.

"It's a tough part of the season," said Karl Malone, who had 27 points. "You know, (the season) winding down, it's nice outside, don't want to be inside. But it's our job and we have to do the best we can. But I think we're playing pretty well."

For those not as concerned about defense as Sloan, the Jazz put on an impressive night. Blue Edwards had three strong dunks, Mike Brown rammed in a rebound shot and David Benoit added a flying jam - all nice material for the highlight films.

Not so nice was the Jazz's matador defense. Early in the contest the Bucks' Fred Roberts took over the baseline for one basket, went in low for another score and added a scoop shot moments later.

While the ageless Moses Malone went to work, leaning and dealing inside, Roberts was playing like he was in his hometown - which he was. He responded with 19 points on the night, second high on the Bucks to Dale Ellis' 20.

Meanwhile, the Jazz mostly stood back and watched as the Bucks repeatedly went inside. "Way too many penetrating moves," said Sloan. "They had five or six moves there in the first half where we actually backed out of their way."

But shutting off the inside wasn't the Jazz's only problem. Milwaukee put up 16 three-point shots, landing eight, including two straight in the second quarter that put them up 38-31.

Being unable to stop the Bucks didn't necessarily end the Jazz's hopes, though. Jeff Malone, heading toward a 30-point performance, was running up his fadeaway shots in classic form, making eight of his first 11 tries. The Bucks tried Jay Humphries, Alvin Robertson and Dale Ellis on Malone, but none of the three had much success stopping him.

"Tonight I was able to do some things that I'd done earlier in the season and that's put the ball on the floor," said Malone. "I can't just stand around and wait for John (Stockton) to hit me every time I shoot, because I need to shoot different types of shots."

Despite their pauses and falterings, the Jazz came out in the second half, outscoring the Bucks 17-5 to start. From then on it was academic, with the lead being whittled to nine and going as high as 23 before the matter ended.

Having handled a team that has lost 21 straight road games wasn't such a big order for the Jazz, but next up is Seattle, tonight at the Seattle Center Coliseum. Utah lost twice already to the Sonics and won at the buzzer in the other game.

"The way we came out (Monday), we're not the same team we were 11/2 weeks ago," said Jeff Malone. "But we're a veteran club and I think we'll work it out."

Spring fever or no spring fever.