HALF THE UTAH JAZZ skipped out the back door after practice Wednesday hoping to avoid the media, but Karl Malone came straight at the crowd of reporters waiting in the hall. No need shying away. This year Malone didn't back away from much of anything. Why start now?

The Jazz open the playoffs tonight at the Delta Center against the Los Angeles Clippers - the worst team in this year's field. It's the kind of matchup only a bully could love. The Jazz are as heavily favored as the Spanish Armada. Still, to no one's surprise, that hasn't stopped the Jazz from being as cautious as ever prior to Game 1. So cautious that most of them didn't want to talk."Absolutely," said Malone, when asked if the Clippers have a chance. "They come in with a lot of energy, and they have nothing to lose and everything to gain."

If the Jazz actually did think of themselves as the Terminator of this year's Western Conference Playoffs, they couldn't be blamed. They won more games than anyone in the league except Chicago. They won the battle for the best record in the West by seven games. It wasn't even close. The Western Conference race consisted of the Jazz and a bunch of people in fake glasses and mustaches. There were the Jazz and then there were the impostors.

Consequently, on the day prior to the first playoff game, the Mailman was feeling good about the near future. "There's no use changing everything just because it's the playoffs. I'm just going to come out and play, and whatever happens happens. That's the way I'm going to focus," said Malone. "I'm not going to go into a shell like in years past and not talk to this person or that person. I play best when I have a little swagger. I play my best when I've got a little bit of an attitude."

Whatever their attitude, the Jazz are plowing new ground, and the playoffs haven't even begun. They're seeded No. 1 in the West, which means they have the home court advantage throughout the first three rounds. It's like being handed a Magic Kingdom pass to Disneyland. So many privileges, so little time.

The Jazz, of course, have never been in this position. They've always been the underdog to someone. They've had the home court advantage in the first round most years, but to have it through three rounds is unprecedented. In the 14 straight years they've made the playoffs, they've never been seeded first, and only seeded second three times. Usually they've been part of the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. But this year they're working hard at pretending they're not expected to go to the NBA Finals. They would rather come on like cat burglars than smash-and-grab robbers. They'd rather arrive unannounced than be introduced with confetti and streamers; show up on the doorstep rather than phone ahead; slip in the patio door instead of coming through the front. This is the team that hates hype so much that it complains every year about the pre-game fireworks.

So it isn't surprising the Jazz are taking extreme caution not to get caught up in their newfound favorites' status. Ask coach Jerry Sloan about being seeded No. 1 and he'll lecture like a high school principal.

"That (being seeded No. 1) doesn't mean anything, unless we can get by the first one," grumped Sloan. "Unless you win the first round, it doesn't mean a thing. I don't mean to offend anyone, but everyone needs to understand that we haven't done anything yet. I still think it's important to take it one game at a time, just the same as the regular season. Anything beyond that is pure speculation."

Being favored, and knowing it, is Sloan's second-worst nightmare - next to actually losing. Looking into the future isn't his favorite hobby. Nobody has ever called him "Nostradamus." You'd be hard pressed to get him to predict what he'll be having for lunch, much less a win in the playoffs. He could find a way to make tying his shoes sound risky. He and the team are taking little solace in having their best regular season ever.

"I'd rather be the No. 1 seed, just because of the home court advantage - you don't have to go on the road for two games and scramble," allowed guard Jeff Hornacek. "Maybe this will be the confidence-booster we need to get over the hump."

It wasn't exactly a guarantee of victory, but that isn't the Jazz's style. Don't bother asking about being favored over the Clippers. They won't even admit they're supposed to win. When you've been the underdog as many times as they have, you just know there's something to be said for having everything to gain and nothing to lose.