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So after sweating and toiling all season to earn that glossy second-best record in the NBA, what is the reward for the Utah Jazz? The Houston Rockets, defending NBA champions.

Some payoff."Records, this year, are definitely overrated," said Utah forward Karl Malone."

"In a way it's unfortunate to start against them," said Jazz guard John Stockton. "We've had a good season, and we'd like to have a cakewalk."

This best-of-five series, which opens Thursday night at the Delta Center, won't be a cakewalk. Don't let the fact the Jazz have beaten Houston in three straight encounters mislead you - the Rockets still pose serious matchup problems for the Jazz.

After Utah's victory over Houston last Sunday to close the regular season, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was asked if he expected anything different from the Rockets on Thursday.

"Yeah, they'll have (Hakeem) Olajuwon," he said.

Houston's marvelous center sat out that game with a stiff neck, but he'll be back for Game 1, and Sloan still doesn't know how to control him.

"We haven't stopped him in two years, I doubt we'll stop him the next time we play," Sloan said.

Another Houston weapon that can hurt the Jazz is the three-point shot. The Rockets were among the league leaders in threes attempted, with six guys who tried 185 or more and two - Clyde Drexler and Vernon Maxwell - who attempted more than 400. Compare that to the Jazz, who had three guys with more than 100 attempts, with Stockton's 227 attempts the team high.

Utah assistant coach Gordon Chiesa says the Jazz have to respect the three-point shot, but not too much.

"We can't over-react to their three-point shooting," he said. "It's almost impossible to take that away from them, because they're so good at it."

The Rockets, meanwhile, figure to have problems with Malone. Since the departure of Otis Thorpe to Portland for Drexler, and a subsequent injury to Carl Herrera, Houston hasn't matched up well with the Mailman. In Salt Lake City last week, Malone scored 45 points against a series of Houston defenders. Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich even tried Olajuwon on Malone, but that's not a good long-term solution because of the Mailman's ability to draw fouls.

Anyway, Houston's personnel moves for the playoffs made it pretty clear what they intend to do against the Jazz. They left small forwards Tracy Murray and Tim Breaux off the playoff roster, in favor of 6-9 Charles Jones, who was signed before last Sunday's game, and Herrera, who they hope to have back by Game 3. That will give them one and eventually two more bodies to throw at Malone.

"That just tells us they're going to come at us with big people with a lot of fouls," Chiesa said. "We've been getting the ball inside, hurting them inside. They're going to try to take that away from us."

After last Sunday's game, forward Robert Horry said the Rockets were working on "big changes" to spring on the Jazz. Sloan said he expects to see some new wrinkles, but nothing too surprising.

"We've had a lot of different things played against us," he said. "We've seen 26 different teams, in 82 games."

The Jazz, on the other hand, say they aren't planning any major alterations.

"You can't go out and change everything you've done," Malone said. "We had a pretty good season. You just make some minor adjustments."

After Wednesday's practice at Westminster College, it was evident the Jazz are a little keyed-up, ready to get this thing under way. Tired of three days of media attention and a lot of the same old questions (especially that one about the "window of opportunity" that drives Malone and Stockton nuts), the Jazz seemed a tad testy. While more confident than ever about their prospects, they also realize they carry the burden of great expectations.

"It's been a great year for us, with all the records and so forth, but it also puts pressure on you for the playoffs," Malone said.

"(The playoffs are) a lot of work," Stockton said. "It's not an easy road. All we can do is try to make it easy on ourselves by winning one game at a time."