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JAZZ BENCH'S VANISHING ACT NEEDS TO END

It's no secret why the Utah Jazz suddenly look very ordinary.

The Jazz coaches said before postseason play began that this team would be competitive only so long as its secondary and bench players - at least a couple of them each night - picked up their games.In the San Antonio series, especially, that happened. Guys like Bryon Russell, Chris Morris, Adam Keefe and Howard Eisley surprised the Spurs by playing consistently well.

But as the Jazz fell behind 2-0 to the Sonics in the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals, Utah's supporting cast vanished. Only Antoine Carr (54.5) has shot better than 42 percent from the field. Seattle, meanwhile, has gotten solid contributions from subs Sam Perkins, Nate McMillan and Vincent Askew.

If the Jazz are to win Game 3 Friday night and keep their slim hopes for a trip to the NBA Finals alive, somebody besides Karl Malone and John Stockton has to produce.

Malone said it shouldn't come as a shock that the Jazz bench has struggled.

"All of a sudden you guys start writing about them, and people start scouting them, and it's not as easy," he said. "Now they (the Sonics) are in your face. And there's more pressure now, too."

On the other hand, the Mailman said, the Jazz's youngsters should treasure this situation.

"It's like your kids, sometimes you wish you could get in their heads and say: `What are you thinking?"' Malone said. "You hope guys realize where we're at, that it takes only four wins to get to the finals. What else do you need to get ready? Right now, this is a great opportunity. Ten or 20 years from now you look back and say, '(Dang), we shoulda.' But that ain't good enough."

Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek concurred. "I think that everyone has to realize, and some of our guys don't, is that when you get this far, every play is a big play," he said. "You can't have everyone on a team have one mistake that leads to a basket. You just can't have that, the games are too close and too important. That's the attitude you have to take, and the guys who haven't been in this situation don't realize it."

Seattle coach George Karl, for one, expects the Jazz's backup guys to improve in Salt lake.

"We all know they play better down there," he said. "Their bench will be much spicier and that crowd will be crazy. That building . . . is going to be unbelievable. I think it'll be a great test."

It may be a test for the Sonics, but its a final for the Jazz. Lose Friday and their season, realistically, is over. No NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 playoff deficit. Only six have won after falling behind 0-2.

"Game 3 for us is the biggest in the series, without a doubt, no question about it," Malone said. "We're on the side of the 8-ball right now, and if we don't take care of business, we'll be behind it."

The Sonics, meanwhile, feel they can just about finish this series by capturing just one victory here this weekend.

"Definitely we have a psychological edge," Askew said. "I don't care what anybody says. When you go up 2-0 they know they have to win two at their home. That's huge."

"Really, for them, they've got to win two games," coach Karl said. "And they're very, very capable of winning two games. I don't see much cracking in Utah."

Something has to crack, however. The Sonics have an eight-game postseason win streak. The Jazz are 6-0 at home in the playoffs. If Utah's streak is to continue, coach Jerry Sloan said his team needs to play smarter.

"We're right there competing with them, we're just not getting to where everybody's got the same goal," Sloan said. "If one guy has just a little bit of doubt, he's not going to be able to run as fast or jump as high. And what (the Sonics) do is put a little doubt in your head."

Seattle definitely has won the mental game so far. Their swarming, switching, pressure defense has caused certain Jazz players - most of them, for that matter - to look hesitant, whether shooting, passing or just figuring out where they're supposed to be on the court.

"We need a lot more intelligence," Sloan said. "We need a lot more desire. They're the ones that have had all the desire."

Sloan also said he'd like to see his players be more aggressive.

"I don't want anybody to jump out there and take cheap shots at anybody," he said. "But I would like to see them be more physical. These guys (the Sonics) come out with work clothes on. They're not afraid to get down and dirty."

Utah's John Stockton has taken some criticism for poor numbers against the Sonics, but Sloan and Malone say the real problem is teammates who have hung the All-Star point guard out to dry.

"We work on stuff to help him," Malone said. "How many times has he made our job easier? And we stand around counting the nails in the floor."

Karl credits his defense for Stockton's subpar efforts.

"I think we're doing a good job on him," the Sonics coach said. "He is our priority in the series. We have more schemes and thoughts on him than we do on Karl Malone."