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THRILLER, BUT SONICS WIN 88-86

The 3-point shot hung high in the air, perfect arc, perfect rotation.

Hanging in the balance were the fates of the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz, two teams that had fought each other to a virtual standstill through 47 minutes and 58 seconds of prime playoff basketball.If the shot goes, the series is tied 2-2. If not, the Sonics are up 3-1.

"If you looked at me, I looked down," Sonics coach George Karl said. "I didn't want to watch it."

Down the ball came and off the rim it bounced, an inch, maybe two inches short. The buzzer sounded.

John Stockton had missed and the SuperSonics had won 88-86 Sunday, moving within one victory of their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1979.

"The shot was straight, no question about it, just a little short," Stockton said of the 25-footer. "That's not what we were looking for, it was probably lengthier than what you'd want for a shot to win the game, but it was certainly makeable."

The victory by Seattle ended Utah's string of playoff home victories at seven and put the Sonics in command in the best-of-7 series. Game 5 is Tuesday night at Key Arena.

"Utah has a lot of heart, but I love my team. They fought through a lot of frustration," Karl said. "It's not over. We have a big opportunity Tuesday night, but as much as they've fought these past two games, we'll have a dogfight on our hands."

Other than the final shot, the difference came at the foul line. Seattle was 31-for-36, making 21 in a row in one stretch, and Utah was only 11-for-22.

Sam Perkins came off the bench to lead Seattle with 20 points and Gary Payton had 19 in winning yet another duel with Stockton. Shawn Kemp fouled out in only 23 minutes, but had 18 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks.

Karl Malone led Utah with 25 and Jeff Hornacek had 19. Stockton finished with seven points, failing to reach double figures for the fourth straight time in the series.

"All through the season and the playoffs, we've had some battles with these guys and they've won every close game," Stockton said. "They deserve credit for that."

There were five ties and four lead changes in the fourth quarter after Utah opened the period with a 10-2 run to tie the game. Kemp made a pair of foul shots with 2:36 left to give Seattle the lead for good, 83-82.

Payton hit a jumper from the corner as the 24-second clock expired, making it 85-82, and Malone made a foul shot 14 seconds later.

Payton then drove through three defenders, much as he has done throughout the series, and scored on a layup for an 87-83 lead with 1:21 left. Utah scored the next three points on an illegal defense technical and a layup by Antoine Carr, and Hersey Hawkins missed a long jumper at the other end to give the ball back to Utah with a chance to take the lead.

The Jazz cleared out the right side and set up their familiar two-man game, but Hornacek's entry pass went right through Malone's hands. Detlef Schrempf picked up the loose ball, was fouled and made one free throw to set up the final sequence.

Utah inbounded under its basket with 12.2 seconds left, Stockton dribbled upcourt and got the ball to Malone in the low post. Seattle quickly double-teamed him, and Malone found Stockton open two steps behind the 3-point line.

"I was hoping it was short or off," Perkins said. "We didn't want them to take a 3."

The Sonics were jubilant as they ran off the floor, knowing they could be playing in the finals as early as Friday night if they win Game 5 and the Bulls sweep the Magic on Monday.

"We feel good," Payton said. "We know they're going to come back strong. We've just got to go home and take care of business."

Stockton's last-second miss made him 2-for-12 on 3-pointers in the series and 33 percent from the field overall. Payton has outscored Stockton in every game and has staked his claim to "Best Point Guard in the West."

"We did everything together tonight," Payton said. "We got our offense going and got the win."

And now, the team with the best record in the West is one victory from eliminating the Jazz in the conference finals for the third time in the last five years.

"Any time you get to 3-1 in a seven-game series and go home for the next game, you've got to have confidence," Kemp said.

After that, it's the finals.

"The dream is to get to the promised land, and that's the promised land," Kemp said.

Notes: Jazz owner Larry Miller was not in his usual courtside seat. Miller, a devout Mormon, does not attend games on Sundays. ... Greg Foster, who played a total of four minutes in the first three games, played 19 minutes Sunday and scored 10 points as coach Jerry Sloan kept David Benoit, Greg Ostertag and Adam Keefe on the bench the whole game. ... Utah attempted 22 more shots than Seattle (75-53) and had only 13 turnovers to the Sonics' 23. ... Payton did not have a steal for the first time in the series. ... Malone had 12 rebounds and eight assists to go with his 25 points, but he was Utah's chief offender from the line. He was 3-for-8 and is shooting 58 percent from the line during the postseason.