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SONICS PLAY WAITING GAME AS JAZZ, SPURS STILL BATTLE

The SuperSonics are used to watching other teams in the playoffs on TV. But this year it's different. Their season is not over. Those games on the tube are not meaningless to them.

Those teams on the big screens are not the Houston Rockets or the Phoenix Suns, whom the Sonics felt they could have defeated the past two years while watching helplessly, dejectedly from their living rooms.For at least one more day and preferably longer, the Sonics can relax and reflect while preparing themselves for their next playoff confrontation against San Antonio or Utah in the Western Conference finals.

They earned this respite by sweeping the two-time defending champion Rockets in the conference semifinals with a nerve-wracking 114-107 overtime victory in Houston Sunday afternoon.

So instead of a Game 5 against the Rockets at Key Arena this evening, the Sonics will practice at their training facility Tuesday, attempting to stay tuned for the next series. Then Tuesday night they will grab their remotes and flip on Game 5 of the Utah-San Antonio series.

The Jazz, leading 3-1, can clinch with a victory at the Alamodome, but the Sonics are hoping they don't. It's not because they are fearful of John Stockton and Karl Malone and the problems they present, it's just that they would like a little more rest.

If Utah wins, the conference finals would begin Saturday at Key Arena, a source in the NBA's New York office said. But if the Spurs prevail, Game 6 will be played Thursday night in Salt Lake City.

Some of the Sonics might want the series to go the distance, ending with Game 7 in San Antonio on Saturday. But then the Sonics would not play again until Monday or next Tuesday, and that would be too long of a wait. How's that for a Sonic worry compared to the past two years - they are concerned about getting rusty.

"I personally don't like it," said coach George Karl. "The players probably do. They're probably happy about taking a couple of days off. But I like playing every other day every two days. We could definitely use one day off, but I don't know about a week off."

The Sonics did not practice Monday, but Karl will have them back on the floor Tuesday.

"George is a gym rat," Shawn Kemp said. "He will give us one day off but that's it. George will make us work, run, scrimmage. He'll keep us into it."

Ideally for the Sonics, the Utah-San Antonio battle will end on Thursday, and that is the most likely scenario if the home teams win the next two games.

Most of the Sonics stayed away from siding with one matchup over the other. It is part of NBA diplomacy. Then there is the possibility of triggering the bulletin-board effect. If Gary Payton were to say: "I'd rather play San Antonio because their backcourt ain't nothin' compared to ours" - which is true - then his comments might end up circulating to the Spurs and backfiring.

Steve Scheffler was the only Sonic who spoke out, saying he would prefer Utah "because San Antonio beat us the last two times."

This season the Sonics went 2-2 with the Spurs and 3-1 with the Jazz, beating Utah the last three meetings. But each series and most of the games against both teams were tight.

The Spurs will need to become just the sixth team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit if they are to face the Sonics. They naturally would be a formidable opponent because of David Robinson, but the Sonics showed they could handle Hakeem Olajuwon with their swarming defense.

The Jazz, of course, play the same old Stockton and Malone halfcourt offense. This would figure to be not only a boring but more difficult series for the Sonics.

Utah might have taken only one of the four games played between the two teams, but the Jazz could have won both encounters in Seattle, losing 94-93 and 100-98. Malone missed a shot at the buzzer in the first game, and Chris Morris misfired on a game-tying attempt in the second.

The rap on the Jazz has always been that they are a two-man team surrounded by nobodies. But they are more capable this year with the perimeter-popping Jeff Hornacek and Morris along with the athletic David Benoit (provided he's healthy). The bench has a solid veteran in Antoine Carr and a young banger in Adam Keefe. The Jazz also have been getting surprisingly steady play from Bryon Russell in the playoffs.

The Jazz are one of the NBA's best executing teams, according to Nate McMillan, who you will also recall called them one of the league's dirtiest, too, earlier this season. And they have that intangible the Sonics finally possess - togetherness.

So no matter what the Sonics are saying, figure they would rather face San Antonio, the only disadvantages being Robinson and a longer flight, four hours vs. two hours. Salt Lake City might be dull compared to festive San Antonio, but the Sonics are making business trips now and they can have the margaritas later.