Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson is already looking down the road, to the decisive game in a best-of-five, opening-round NBA Western Conference playoff series with the Jazz.

One problem.

His Mavs are down 0-2 after Utah's 109-98 victory Tuesday night at the sold-out Delta Center, a marathon game (two hours, 49 minutes) in which Jazz star Karl Malone went for 34 points and Dallas came up short on that last, long step after whittling a 20-point deficit down to just 3.

Nelson knows that, but it still didn't stop him from thinking about a meeting that has "IF NECESSARY" preceding it in big, bold letters.

"I think we can beat them in a fifth game," the Mavs coach said. "If we're fortunate enough to get to a fifth game, I would really like our chances.

"I think we would get stronger as the series goes on," Nelson added. "But we have to make it go on."

At this point, that's somewhat easier said that done.

Utah won Game 1 88-86 on Saturday, slipping by on Danny Manning's late-game 3-pointer and a coupled a failed Dallas possessions in the final few seconds.

This time, the Jazz, appearing in the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season, had a relatively easier time with the Mavs, who are playing in the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

Still, it's not as if the Jazz are cakewalking their way to a three-game sweep.

Utah jumped out to a 28-19 first-quarter lead and was up by 12 at 53-41 going into the break. The Jazz even went up by as many as 20 when Bryon Russell canned a 3 late in the third quarter, part of his 24 points. But by the middle of the fourth Dallas had Utah's trimmed by 17.

"They have a very talented team," said Malone, who was 11-of-22 from the field and scored 10 of his 34 in the final quarter. "They have guys at different positions that can hurt you all the time.

"You can go up by 15 or 16, and you think you have it sewn up, and then you get lax, and then they come back and hit some threes."

Which is precisely what happened to the Jazz on Tuesday.

Steve Nash's three pointer to open the fourth made it 84-71 Utah. A few possessions later, Nash hit another three pointer, this one making it 84-76 Utah. And by the time Dirk Nowitzki sank one himself from outside the arc, then followed it with a free throw after being fouled by Russell, Utah's advantage stood at just 90-87 with six minutes and seven seconds remaining.

Had Nash not missed another three pointer try half-a-minute later, the two teams would have been back at even.

What a wakeup call, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan suggested, "You know that they are going to make a run at you," Sloan said, "and you hope that you can do the right thing and get the ball to the right people, and hopefully make the right decisions."

Despite all the obstacles they faced, the Jazz did just that. Already playing without hospitalized shooting guard John Starks, Utah's big men got into all sorts of trouble:

Olden Polynice was ejected with a type-2 flagrant foul in the third quarter, when he tried to use 7-foot-6-inch Mavs center Shawn Bradley as a personal pogo stick ("Those things are uncalled for in the game of basketball," said Sloan, clearly disappointed with Polynice). Backup center Greg Ostertag, who wound up fouling out, and reserve big man Manning both had five fouls before the final quarter. Donyell Marshall was in foul trouble all game; he had four going into the fourth, and he then fouled out, too.

With a bit of a bailout from veteran sub David Benoit (11 points in 27 minutes) and some back-to-basics play from Malone, Russell and John Stockton, though, Utah survived the scare.

After Malone connected on a jumper, Stockton hit two free throws, Malone made four straight from the line, Manning hit a layup and Marshall converted two freebies of his own, the Jazz's lead was back to 13, and all for Utah was safe for the night.

Still, those with the Jazz were not about to rest easily — especially not with the series about to move back to Texas for Game 3 on Saturday and, possibly, Game 4 on Tuesday night.

"This series is not over with," Malone said after a typical Jazz-Mavs game of late, one including seven technicals and two ejections (Dallas' Vernon Maxwell was tossed, too). "We're going to go into a war zone down in Dallas, but that's part of it.

"I hope we don't go down there with the attitude that we have two games down there," Malone added. "I hope that we go down with the attitude that we want to win the first game we play."

Nelson, meanwhile, isn't thinking about two games at all. He has three more in mind.

"We'd love to come back here to Salt Lake for a fifth game," said Nelson, himself ejected from Game 1.

"I think we'll be really good in the third game and better in the fourth game, and I think we'll be terrific in the fifth," he added. "We have to make sure a fifth game happens."

That, of course, requires winning one, to start. And so far in these playoffs, that hasn't happened.


E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com