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It was one of those days when whatever the Utah Jazz tried, the right thing wasn't going to happen. Fate had chosen sides. Lady Luck had taken the day off. Fortune, at least as far as the Jazz were concerned, was frowning.

They held the best player in the NBA, Hakeem Olajuwon, to an unlikely 16 points. They overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. They stole the ball and landed a clutch 3-pointer. They had the ball with 13.5 seconds to go and a chance to tie or win the game. They even gained an extra 10 seconds thanks to the official timer.But nothing was going to save them on this day. In the end, a Tom Chambers shot missed and Houston's Robert Horry came up with the ball in a scramble for the rebound as the Rockets escaped with an 80-78 win at the Delta Center, Sunday afternoon. That left the Jazz shaking their heads and looking at a steep climb ahead. They trail the best-of-seven Western Conference finals series 3-1 and return to Houston Tuesday for Game 5.

"I just look at all the things we couldn't get done," said Jazz forward Karl Malone. "It was there, but we never could get it done."

If the Jazz were feeling slightly picked on Sunday afternoon, they had reason enough to complain. After losing two straight games in Houston early last week, they were quickly in trouble.

But the two losses were only part of their problems. Somewhere between Wednesday's loss in Houston and Thursday morning, the Jazz's All-Star forward, Karl Malone, came down sick with what he thought was either food poisoning or the flu. He spent Thursday in bed and skipped Friday's shoot-around, but played on Friday night, though in a relatively weakened condition. Even so the Jazz won Game 3.

Malone also missed Saturday's practice, but by Sunday was finally starting to revive. "I ate some pancakes this morning. It's the first time I've eaten since Wednesday in Houston," said Malone.

Though Malone was present on Sunday, he still moved gingerly about the court. He made just nine of 23 shots, pulling up short on several jump shots and one time barely grazing the rim on a free throw. In the final period Malone made just three of 10 shots. He also missed two key free throws.

"The energy level just wasn't there for me. I couldn't ever get my second shots," said Malone. "Sometimes the adrenalin will make up for that. Sometimes it won't."

Malone added, however, that he wouldn't make excuses and he wasn't about to call in sick. "I don't want to look back and say, damn, I could have sucked it up and played."

Despite Malone's condition, things rolled along relatively well for the Jazz through most of the afternoon. Olajuwon, for the second straight game, was effectively caged by Jazz center Felton Spencer and an assortment of teammates intent on keeping the league's MVP in check. For the most part, it worked. Olajuwon made just six of 18 shots, hounded every time he touched the ball.

But while Olajuwon struggled, the Rockets received desperately needed help from guard Kenny Smith. Twelve minutes into the game Smith already had a dozen points. He finished the night tied with Malone for scoring honors with 25.

"I just made a conscious effort to be aggressive on the offensive end. Once I was able to do that I think it opened the floor for the rest of the guys," said Smith. "It was something I said yesterday I was going to try to do and it just worked."

Houston got its lead up to nine at the start of the third quarter but the Jazz cut it to one. Jeff Hornacek, who finished with 18 points, missed an open 16-footer that would have given the Jazz the lead. Houston went on a 10-1 run to end the third quarter to lead 60-50 going into the final period.

"We had our chances. We just didn't make our shots," said Hornacek.

Hornacek rimmed out another shot with 2:45 to go in the game that would have brought the Jazz within three. However, he wasn't the only one with troubles down the stretch. The Mailman followed by missing a 15-footer 27 seconds later.

While Fate had determined the Jazz were to lose, John Stockton had another idea. He stole a pass and drove for a layup with 2:02 left, cutting Houston's lead to three. Though the Rockets were soon back ahead by seven, the Jazz made their final run. Malone made a tip-in and Hornack - who made 33 straight free throws in the playoffs - missed the second of two, leaving the Jazz behind 79-75 with 29.6 seconds to go. Horry made one of two free throws and Stockton sank a 3-pointer with 13.5 seconds left, pulling the Jazz within two.

Stockton then drew an offensive foul on Houston rookie Sam Cassell, giving the Jazz the ball with a two-point deficit.

The Jazz in-bounded the ball and the final moments ensued. Sort of. Official timer Wayne Hicken (see related story) failed to start the clock for 10 seconds. But even that didn't help the Jazz. They worked the ball to Malone, who couldn't get off a shot. He passed to Jay Humphries, who in turn passed to Chambers in the lane. Chambers lost control of the ball going up and then tried to tip it in. In a scramble for the rebound, Horry recovered and the Rockets ran out the clock.

"I have a nice little five-footer and they fouled the (expletive) out of me, to put it bluntly, and no call there," said Chambers. "Those two free throws would have put us into overtime."

Thus, the Jazz's unlucky day ended as they might have expected, with the stars all lined up wrong. Even the extra 10 seconds didn't help. They had held Olajuwon in check and staged a major comeback and the Mailman was back, and still it wasn't enough.

"We did just about everything possible to give them the game back," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

But for the Jazz, it just wasn't going to happen.