Karl Malone had done about everything short of finding a cure for arthritis when he pulled up 24 feet away from the hoop Sunday night in Portland. It wasn't like he couldn't have made the shot. If ever there was a night for Malone to make a three-pointer during crunch time, this was it.

He hadn't merely been good all night, he'd been bullet proof.When Portland's Buck Williams had crowded Malone out of the middle, Malone made outside jumpers in clusters. When they loosened up inside, he muscled his way in low to score. When they fouled him, he was perfect at the line.

"With Karl, what are you going to do?" said Blazers' Coach Rick Adelman. "He takes those jumpers, I guess it's the lesser of two evils. He made everything he shot. All you can do is make him work hard."

But after 36 points and 16 rebounds, Malone was due for something to go wrong. Something did. His three-point shot bounced away with 1:33 left in the game and along with it went the Jazz's hopes for their biggest win so far as Portland claimed a 101-97 win at Memorial Coliseum.

The loss left the Jazz with a sort of disappointed optimism, knowing they had played what is right now the league's best team to a standoff. But that didn't help them in the win/loss column.

The Jazz should know quickly about playing against the best. Having met Portland, they now return home to face the Washington Bullets Monday. Although the Bullets couldn't be construed as a fine team, this week also includes games against Detroit (Wednesday) and the Lakers (Friday). "It's going to be an interesting week," said Malone.

If Sunday was any indication, it will be a fascinating week, as well.

The Jazz came into the game on a five-game win streak. However, that didn't clear much up, considering the wins were over Orlando, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and Minnesota. Not exactly the Dirty Dozen. But this game, against the hottest team in the league, on the Blazers' home court, was another matter.

"We felt pretty good about it. For the most part, we got after them," said Malone. "We did it for the most part, but not for the whole game."

For the Blazers, the game stood to be a problem. It was only the second contest in an 18-game, 30-day December. Just the night before, Portland had gone into triple overtime before defeating the mediocre Seattle SuperSonics.

"We weren't flat tonight," said Adelman. "But in this case you're not going to be as pumped up after the type of game we had the night before. But we came in with good focus. We wanted to get into the game."

It was obvious early that the contest was going to be an intense, physical struggle. Try as they might, the Blazers were rarely able to get their running, dunking game in gear. The Jazz dictated the tempo from the beginning, waiting for good shots and holding the Blazers' transition game in check with solid defense.

As far as shooting went, it was obvious what the game was going to be: Karl Malone vs. the Free World. Although the Jazz shot only 41 percent for the night, Malone was phenomenal (15-of-23 from the field, 6-for-6 at the line). Most of Malone's points came from 10-15 feet out, as the Blazers' Williams followed one of the NBA's most widely held tenents: Either let Malone score on you outside, or let him score on you inside . . . and maybe get hurt while you're doing it.

"I know I wouldn't want to play him if I was Buck," said Adelman.

For a few moments in the second quarter, the Jazz nearly let the Blazers break away, going almost two minutes without scoring, while the Blazers rattled off six straight for a 34-23 lead.

But the Jazz regrouped before the break, when Malone got rolling and John Stockton landed a three-pointer with 27 seconds left inthe half. Portland led 45-40 at the break.

Utah took its biggest lead, 51-48, with 8:46 to go in the third period. But the Blazers then picked up the pace momentarily, outscoring the Jazz 11-2 to take a 59-53 lead.

Utah tied the score at 76-76 in the early fourth quarter but never led again. The Jazz cut Portland's lead to 90-89, but with 1:33 to go and the Jazz trailing by three, Malone pulled up for his three-pointer that missed. The shot was an option - but probably not the first - in that situation.

"In that situation we might have looked at a little better shot," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, "but he's there, and he felt good about taking it. He took the shot, so he paid the price for missing it."

One could hardly blame Malone for trying. To that point he had made 15 of 22 shots and was the only Jazz player other than Mark Eaton (3-for-6) to have made half his shots for the game.

"That was the play, and that's what I did," said Malone.

On the ensuing play, the Blazers' Terry Porter landed a three-pointer for a 95-89 lead with 1:14 to go. After Kevin Duckworth stole a Stockton pass and threw it to Clyde Drexler for the dunk, it was all over.

Darrell Griffith sank two three-pointers in the last 24 seconds to keep the Jazz close.

Williams led the Blazers with 23 points and 11 rebounds.

The final result left the Jazz musing over how they could have won but didn't. "It's frustrating," said Stockton, "to have it right there in our grasp. But that's the reason they're so good."

"I think we're just as good as they are," said Malone.

But Portland is 14-1 and Utah is 8-7, so Malone may get some argument on that. At least until they meet in the Salt Palace in January, and the Jazz get another chance to prove otherwise.

GAME NOTES: In four of the last six years, the home team has won all the games between these clubs . . . The loss ended a five-game Jazz win streak . . . Utah holds a 41-34 alltime lead over the Blazers, but Portland has a 28-10 mark against the Jazz at home.