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FREE THROWS LIFT JAZZ PAST PUPS, 99-96

Oh, those suspense-loving Utah Jazz. Here they are trying to build momentum for the playoffs and tune-up for Sunday's season-ending game against Houston, and they come within a couple of bungled plays of losing to the lowly Minnesota Timberpuppies.

The Jazz shot a pitiful 38.7 percent from the field, to 51.3 percent for the Timberwolves, and when you shoot like that you're supposed to lose, not win 99-96.At least, that's what Minnesota coach Bill Blair thought.

"We played as hard as we can play tonight," he said. "We played well all the way around, the numbers show that."

What the numbers also show is that Utah posted a whopping 40-15 edge at the free-throw line.

"That's incredible, 40 to 15 at the free-throw line," Blair said. "That young official (Tony Brothers) just took over the game, made every call."

"It's hard to come back and win when they're going to the free-throw line all the time," said Wolves forward Christian Laettner. "We lost because they shot three times more free throws than us."

For a long time, it didn't look as if the Wolves would have to mount a comeback. They led for two and a half quarters, and it was a two-point game at the end of three. But, somehow, you just sensed that a team that had lost 13 of its last 15, 11 of 12 on the road, and with Friday's defeat became the first in NBA history to have four straight 60-loss seasons, would find another way to lose.

And the Jazz, well, they've been on a mini-roll of late, and it seemed just as likely they'd find a way to win.

Early in the game, however, it didn't seem like such a sure thing. Utah started the game a little sluggish, especially defensively - perhaps because they were looking ahead to Houston. Even the Timberwolves noticed.

"Obviously, it didn't seem like they were into it," Minnesota center Sean Rooks said.

Jazz forward Karl Malone, usually the model of consistency, had perhaps his worst night of the season, hitting six of 22 shots.

"I've never seen him miss that many shots," Blair said. At least, not in one night.

The opening minutes of the game didn't look altogether promising for Minnesota - Laettner got his second foul less than two minutes into the game, having twice hacked Utah center James Donaldson, which isn't easy, considering that Donaldson generally touches the ball about twice a game.

But with Greg Foster relieving Laettner and scoring eight points in the period, the Wolves managed to finish the period ahead of Utah, 31-29.

Utah cut the Timberwolves' lead to four in the opening minutes of the second quarter, at 32-28. But Laettner returned and scored eight of Minnesota's next 13 as the Wolves built a 13-point lead. From that point the Jazz slowly whittled away at the Minnesota lead, going 10-for-10 at the line in the final 5:21 to pull within two at the half, 51-49.

The third quarter was a seesaw affair, with neither team able to pull in front by more than four. The start of the fourth quarter was where the Wolves lost the game. Utah opened the period with a 14-2 run, led by reserves Antoine Carr and Blue Edwards.

"Blue came in and he deflected a couple basketballs, he got a couple big rebounds," Malone said. "He and Antoine definitely made a difference."

Minnesota then mounted a comeback, but it died at around the one-minute mark. Utah's John Stockton made a pair of free throws to put the Jazz up 95-88 with 1:13 left. Laettner then missed a tough running bank shot in the lane, but Isaiah Rider chased it down in the corner, drove for the hoop and attempted an ill-advised dunk that Carr deflected, Utah recovering. On the other end, Carr fired up a high-arch bank that missed badly, but the Jazz's David Benoit grabbed the long rebound as several Timberwolves spectated. Rider then fouled Jeff Hornacek, who made both free throws for a nine-point lead.

Laettner hit a three and a near-three, and Foster also nailed a three, to pull the Wolves within three at the final buzzer.

Malone led the Jazz with 22 points (and 12 rebounds) despite his miserable shooting effort. Benoit scored 19, Hornacek 18 and Carr 17. Stockton had nine assists, pushing him over the 1,000 mark for the seventh time in his career.

For the T-Wolves, Rider totaled 25, Laettner 20, Tom Gugliotta 13, Foster and Rooks 12 each.

As for the playoff situation, this much we know: The Jazz will open against Houston at the Delta Center on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., then play again here on Saturday (time to be announced). Whether the Jazz will go into the playoffs with the No. 2 or No. 3 best record in the Western Conference won't be determined until Sunday. If Phoenix loses (against Seattle), the Jazz are No. 2, win or lose. If Phoenix wins, the Jazz have to win, too, to clinch the No. 2 spot, giving them homecourt advantage against everyone except the Spurs.