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STOCKTON DRAGS JAZZ TO WIN

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

At least, nobody in their right mind said it. Maybe if you live next door to a paint-thinner factory and you've been leaving the windows open you thought the Utah Jazz would breeze past the Houston Rockets, but most people, realizing the Rockets may be the best No. 6 seed in NBA history, saw this coming."This" being a frenzied, physical and sometimes sloppy Game 1 of a best-of-five playoff series, captured by Utah 102-100 Thursday night at the Delta Center on John Stockton's audacious drive through the heart of the Rockets defense.

Stockton's clutch shot overcame a 45-point performance by Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon.

"Olajuwon's something else," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "What a player."

Sloan could say the same of Stockton, who seemed determined to compel the Jazz to win. Sometimes criticized - gently, of course - for not shooting enough, the prototypical point guard fired up 19 shots, hitting 12, for 28 points.

"He had to take more shots for us," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek, who was held to a 2-for-10 shooting effort.

Stockton demonstrated early that he planned to be more than just a passer. He also seemed committed to making sure the Jazz didn't get off to any deadly slow starts. He scored Utah's first six points of the game, its first 10 points of the second quarter and eight of the first 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Given all that, it was only fitting that Stockton take the winning shot. It went like this: With 17.9 seconds left, Houston guard Kenny Smith drilled a 20-footer from the left corner to knot the game at 100. With six seconds remaining, Stockton drove the lane, closely guarded by Smith. As he left his feet, so did three Rockets. Stockton's scoop shot barely cleared the fingers of Olajuwon and Robery Horry. The ball hit the front of the rim, then the back of the rim, grazed off the glass and nestled in the net. The Rockets had 2.4 seconds left to get off a final shot, but a long, slim-chance three by Vern Maxwell wasn't close.Stockton's game-winner effectively nullified a spectacular effort by the unstoppable Olajuwon. Last year's MVP scored 15 of his team's 22 first-quarter points, and once he found the rhythm, he continued to play that tune against a procession of Jazz defenders. And the Jazz's big guys weren't dogging it, either. They did everything but mace the guy.

"We worked hard all night long," said Utah's Tom Chambers. "When he gets going like that it's tough."

"You really don't know what to do against him," said Antoine Carr.

The Rockets may have had their problems of late, but Thursday they showed the heart and confidence of World Champions, though not the precision. Neither team looked smooth, combining for 37 turnovers.

"We had 13 turnovers the first half," Sloan said. "The anxiety had a lot to do with that."

The Jazz also had trouble at the free-throw line. The NBA's best free-throw shooting team (78.1) made 20 of 31 foul shots (64.5 percent).

Except for Stockton (and he had an uncharacteristic six turnovers), none of the Utah starters played terrific games. Karl Malone finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, but he made just eight of 19 shots. David Benoit hit two of seven shots.

Malone was somewhat perplexed by what he considered a subpar performance.

"I know I can play better," he said. "I didn't have the energy level I normally have, and I don't know why."

With the starters struggling, it was the bench that once again came to the rescue. There was speculation coming into this series about whether Sloan would get conservative and whittle his rotation to seven or eight guys, but 10 Jazzmen played double-figure minutes. This time, the key guys were Adam Keefe (27 minutes, 11 points, five rebounds); Carr, 10 points; and Chambers, 10 points, five boards. Keefe played the entire fourth quarter, and rookie Jamie Watson got eight fourth-quarter minutes.

Besides Olajuwon, three Rockets scored in double figures. Smith scored 14, Horry 13 and Pete Chilcutt 12. Clyde Drexler, who didn't touch the ball much, totaled seven points.

Both teams practice Friday in preparation for Game 2 at the Delta Center on Saturday, 8 p.m.

GAME NOTES: Historically, winners of Game 1 have captured 80 percent of best-of-five series . . . Malone and Stockton both got technical fouls; Stockton's was for complaining about a play in which Olajuwon stole the ball from Donaldson, then went from halfcourt to the hoop on one dribble. Olajuwon, who drags his pivot foot so much he leaves skidmarks in the paint, was called for traveling once . . . Horry popped Carr's goggles off with a pushoff to the face on a third-quarter drive to the hoop . . . Olajuwon was sucking oxygen on the bench during the game.