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DID STOCKTON PASS TORCH TO PAYTON?

The tiny percentage of the basketball world that cares about the Western Conference finals awaits the predictable rebound tonight in Game 2 by the Utah Jazz. But something happened in Game 1 that isn't subject to change, and won't be influenced by a reversal in the outcome Monday or in the series.

Saturday afternoon John Stockton passed the torch to Gary Payton, who pretty much clubbed him with it.Stockton no longer is the smartest, toughest, most effective guard in the West. He's 34 years old, has an aching muscle in his leg and a bigger pain in his face - Payton, his successor.

The passage might have occurred earlier this year, or even in a previous season. But Saturday's 102-72 result, and Payton's dominance of Stockton, left no doubt that the student has passed the mentor.

Predictably, neither Payton, 27, nor Stockton would engage in such thoughts. Even teammates claimed to be baffled that comparative measures would be employed.

"They have two different games," insisted Stockton's backcourt mate, Jeff Hornacek. "Gary scores a lot and John runs the offense more. How do you compare points to assists? I don't quite see how you (reporters) do that."

Said Stockton: "It's not a matchup thing. It's who won. He certainly played well."

To a degree, they are right: It is a team game, and the responsibilities of Payton and Stockton are different. But as every coach in the NBA says this time of year, the playoffs are about matchups. The kind of matchups that allow a No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, the kind of matchups that allow a two-time defending champion to get swept.

Even if Payton and Stockton don't always play each other on the court, and even if they do different tasks, the fact is that this series turns on what Stockton and Payton do. The series has gone toward Seattle primarily because Payton overwhelmed Stockton on Saturday.

Not only were Payton's 21 points, seven assists, four rebounds and three steals superior to Stockton's line, the NBA's defensive player of the year swallowed his rival (eight misses in 10 field-goal attempts, four points).

"The two shots Stockton made in the first half were difficult," said Sonics coach George Karl. "High archers, off balance."

There was no way Payton was allowing Stockton his specialty: the penetration and pass.

"I just concentrated on keeping John in front of me," Payton said, then quickly rushed to defend the player he had just defended into irrelevancy. "I know he's a great player and he's going to come back. He's going to have a good game one of these games. He might have good games for the rest of the series.

"It was just one of them days. He just wasn't clicking. He wasn't in sync."

Payton denied he saw that Stockton was hampered by a hamstring injury suffered in the San Antonio series.

"I didn't see it," he said. "If it was bothering him, it was covered up real well."

Yet Payton, in an accidental moment of candor, said he was moved to inquire on the floor about Stockton's well-being.

"I asked him if he was OK," Payton said, "and he said he was fine."

In the trash-talk world of pro sports, where Payton is a black-belt practitioner, the question was a sly, subtle way of suggesting slippage.

Payton would never yap at Stockton the way he yapped at his replacement, second-year guard Howard Eisley. But neither would Payton fail to press his advantage, even over a player whom Payton has often said is the one guard he most admires and emulates.

Already younger, taller, quicker and faster than Stockton, Payton is now healthier. The three days between Games 2 and 3 might help Stockton recover some physically, although hamstrings rarely heal quickly playing 30 to 35 minutes in the pressure of the penultimate in pro basketball, the conference finals.

Payton is not about to feel sorry for Stockton. Nobody felt sorry for Payton when, in Game 5 of the 1994 series against Denver, he rolled his ankle. Or last year's playoff against the Lakers, when he played with a broken finger. Or even in Game 2 this year against Sacramento, when an intestinal virus left him listless and helped produce the Sonics' only loss in the playoffs.

Even Stockton's coach isn't feeling sorry for him.

"He's not 19 years old anymore," said Utah's Jerry Sloan. "But he's fine. I expect him to be in here (for Game 2)."

So pity and compassion aren't issues here, just the fact that Stockton's 12 years in the league (Saturday was playoff game No. 101 for him) have to start showing up sometime. The miles are harder on the game's small men. Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were able to extend themselves to fortysomething by walking up the floor, but Lenny Wilkens set the mark for guards when he played until he was 37.

Age, of course, has been the Jazz's biggest fear: that Stockton and Karl Malone would get old before they got to the top.

The Jazz have made the conference finals three times in the past five years. But this time they went the full five games against Portland in the first round, six games in the second round against San Antonio, then with little rest faced a younger, faster team waiting at home on six days' rest.

The Sonics were so sure Utah would advance that the second unit ran the Jazz offense most of the week in practice.

"They decided that?" Stockton said, smiling. "I wish they had told us. We were busting our humps to get here."

They will bust their humps again tonight, and they might succeed. But something has changed between the Sonics and Jazz.