Karl Malone, in virtually every game, pats a referee or two on the backside when discussing a call. It's not a big deal. At least it wasn't until the Jazz played in Orlando on Thursday and the official was Dee Kantner, one of the two new female refs.

After Kantner called Malone for a foul near the end of the third quarter, he patted her on her rear end on his way to the bench. Some of the Magic fans noticed and howled. Kantner just shrugged her shoulders and smiled, so no sexual harassment suits are likely pending."When you give them a pat, you sometimes forget they're female because they're out there doing a job," Malone said. "In some work forces, you can't do that. In the heat of the moment, you do that, and you think, `That's a female!' But for the most part, you want to treat her just like she's a guy."

Meanwhile, Jerry Sloan's placement of Antoine Carr into the starting lineup three games ago appears to be working - even if it seemed like a strange move at the time. After all, Carr had been struggling and, just a week earlier, had threatened to quit the team. But the Jazz are 2-1 since the move and Carr is producing. He's averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 assists since the change.

"I'm starting to get my game back, shots are starting to fall and I'm feeling good about playing again," said the 36-year-old Big Dawg.

LOOKING BACK

The Jazz are starting to play better as a team. Sure, they lost a pair of winnable games during their current road trip - but at least they've been in a position to blow it late in the game. In the majority of their prior road losses it didn't matter what happened down the stretch - because the Jazz had been too far behind.

The week started with a heartbreaking two-point loss at Washington and ended with a heartbreaking five-point loss in Cleveland. In the middle, though, were the two best road games of the season. It was predicted in this space last week that the Jazz would go 1-3 in their first four games of their current trip. They surpassed that by midweek.

LOOKING AHEAD

With tonight's game at Atlanta the Jazz still have a chance to do something they didn't do a year ago - produce a winning record on the pre-Christmas trip. Last season they went 2-3.

After tonight's game, Utah returns home for a couple of 1 p.m. matinees - Christmas Day for an NBC-televised Western Conference Finals rematch against Houston and Saturday afternoon against Portland. The Rockets are without the injured Hakeem Olajuwon, but they've been playing fine anyway. Kevin Willis and Charles Barkley have picked up the slack inside in The Dream's stead. The Trail Blazers ripped Utah in Rip City earlier this month, but that was before John Stockton returned to the Jazz lineup.

Utah will finish the week with a Sunday night game in Vancouver against the much-improved Grizzlies.

Projected record for the week: 2-2, which would give Utah a 17-12 overall mark.

PLAYER UPDATE

BACKCOURT: Utah's point guard is starting to look like the Stockton of old rather than an old Stockton. He's been cleared to play 28 minutes - in four seven-minute stretches - as he comes back slowly from the first major injury of his long career, knee surgery on Oct. 13. He's averaged 12 points, five assists and 2.3 steals in his past three games. Jeff Hornacek has been nearly flawless from the foul line. He's made 107 of his 117 attempts or 91.5 percent. He's also shooting well from 3-point land, where he is 21 of 49 (42.8 percent).

FRONTCOURT: The big news here is that Sloan, disappointed in what he's been getting from both his Gregs (Foster and Ostertag), inserted Carr into the lineup at center. Carr, who hadn't started in his two-plus years with the Jazz until last week, has a nice shooting touch and is a threat to score, but he's been getting into early foul trouble.

Keefe continues to play well. On the road trip he's averaged 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. Malone remains as steady as Seattle rain. He's led the Jazz in scoring in 24 consecutive games.

BENCH: Russell's shooting touch still hasn't returned completely, but he's doing the other things - such as playing defense and rebounding - that made him such a valuable contributor last season. If Keefe weren't playing so well, he'd have a chance at returning to the starting linuep. Greg Ostertag had a run-in with the coach in Washington. Sloan sent him back to the locker room. It seemed to catch his attention; he grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of playing time - his most action since the seventh game of the year - Thursday night in Orlando.

After 16 games as a starter, Greg Foster is back on the bench and in a slump. Howard Eisley is doing a solid job as Stockton's back-up. He's doing so well that rookie Jacque Vaughn has seen no playing time on the trip. Neither has Chris Morris, but that doesn't mean he hasn't had a good trip. He must have been having fun Friday night somewhere, because he missed curfew. Unfortunately, that led to him being in his street clothes during Sunday's games for "violating club policy."

Monday, Dec. 22

Atlanta

Road game

5:30 p.m.

Thursday, Dec. 25

Houston

Home game

1:00 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 27

Portland

Home game

1:00 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 28

Vancouver

Road game

6:30 p.m.