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Malone delivers message: Play now

The Utah Jazz held a closed-door, players-only meeting Friday after practice at Westminster College. Afterward, nobody was talking about what was said, but suffice it to say they didn't swap fishing stories or plan a surprise party for the coaches.

Some of the players - including Karl Malone - are not pleased with the effort shown thus far in the exhibition season. With the regular season less than a week away, that fact was no doubt brought out in the meeting."We're getting paid to play," said Malone. "That's the frustrating part. We're not coming out ready to play. If we don't pick it up, it's going to be a long season."

The first chance to see if the meeting of the players was productive will be tonight, when the Jazz face the Portland Trail Blazers in an exhibition game beginning at 8 p.m. Utah, 3-3 in the preseason, will host Phoenix Monday night in the Delta Center for their final tune-up. The regular season will start on Halloween when they face the Lakers in L.A.

The Jazz lost three of four games on their recent Eastern road swing. That didn't sit well with the Mailman.

"You get ready to play the regular season during the preseason, even if you don't play a lot of minutes," said Malone. "I don't want to hear people say, `When the regular season starts, then I'll be ready to play.' I don't want to hear that (expletive)."

Who might Malone have been speaking about?

It certainly sounds like fellow starting forward Bryon Russell, for one. Russell has made only 35 percent of his field goals through six preseason games. Then, after going 1-for-5 from the field Wednesday at Charlotte, Russell said, "I'm not worried about it. I don't care about the preseason. I know I'll make shots when the season starts."

It was obviously the wrong answer in Malone's book.

Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek described the team meeting as no big deal. "We just talked about having two more exhibition games and getting ready for the regular season," he said.

Still, Hornacek admitted the Jazz have much room for improvement. "We're not at the point we would like to be," he acknowledged. "The guys need to realize that people will be aiming at us when we step out on the court, because we are a team that was in the NBA Finals. We can't just step out there and beat people. We've kind of been on cruise control. Cruise control will get you to about .500 but won't get you to be a good team."

Added new starting point guard Howard Eisley, when asked about the players' gathering: "We were just trying to make sure everybody is on the same page. The beginning of the season is right around the corner, and we all need to be ready to carry our share of the load when the season starts."

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was not invited to the meeting, but he obviously has similar concerns.

"If you're not in great shape to play basketball, it's pretty tough to do the things necessary to be sharp," said Sloan. "We still have guys struggling, conditionwise . . . They pretty much assured me they'd be ready to go by the time the season starts. Now we've got, what, six, seven days? Maybe there is something they can do, but I don't know what that seven days is going to entail. They might be in better shape, but they may be dead by the time they get there if they try to do it all in a crash course."

One thing Sloan is happy with is the play of Eisley and rookie Jacque Vaughn in relief of injured all-star guard John Stockton.

"Our point guards have done a pretty good job," he said. "It's the other people I'm concerned about."

Eisley is averaging 10 points and 3.5 assists in 22.3 minutes per game. Vaughn is averaging 8.3 points on 55 percent shooting from the field and 3.2 assists in 16.8 minutes.

JAZZ NOTES: Forward Chris Morris, who hasn't played in the last five preseason games after scoring 12 points in the opener, should see action tonight. Morris has been slowed by a hamstring injury . . . The Jazz are still two players over the roster limit of 12. They have until Thursday to trim down to size. Veteran center Greg Dreiling and rookie guards Nate Erdmann and Troy Hudson are battling for the final spot on the roster. None of the three have done much in the preseason games . . . Portland, tonight's opponent, is 4-2 in the preseason. The Blazers have five players averaging between 9.8 and 14 points.