The Admiral has a clear head once again, and is back to playing like he used to, using the middle as his own personal laboratory. There's no more worrying about the gulf war for San Antonio's David Robinson, just basketball.

The Utah Jazz's longest road trip of the year ends at HemisFair Arena Monday night. It could hardly be a more interesting finish to a long, often surprising trip. After winning four games straight and losing their last two on the 11-day journey, the Jazz close things out against their only serious competition for the Midwest title, the San Antonio Spurs.With the Spurs only five percentage points ahead in the division standings, the game has all the makings of a pre-playoff showdown. A

sellout crowd will be on hand to see the fifth and final meeting between these teams (Utah leads 3-1). The game will be shown at 6:30 p.m. (MST) on Fox-13.

"It's going to be rocking Monday, huh?" said Spurs Coach Larry Brown to San Antonio Light writer Brad Townsend.

As for the Admiral, his days of worrying about friends in the gulf are over. For a time, the All-Star center admitted his mind wasn't in the game. He went through a series of sub-par performances and the Spurs, bogged down by injuries, struggled.

But after losing four in a row and six of eight, they have come alive in March, winning four straight. Robinson scored 30 points and had 10 rebounds in San Antonio's 112-99 rout of Seattle Saturday night. Robinson says he is feeling more like his old self.

And so are the Spurs.

"I guess this is the time of the year when you have such a good team like ours, the only thing that's stuck in your mind is championship," forward Sidney Green told the Light.

With a quarter of the season left, though, Jazz forward Karl Malone is taking a more cautious approach. "Sure this is a big game, but people need to understand it's not the end of the world," said Malone. "We beat them in Salt Lake to tie them (in the standings) and everyone thought that was a big deal, when it's really not. In this business, you learn not to get too high or too low."

Part of the Spurs' rejuvenation has to do with a return of some missing players. Starting forward Terry Cummings is back off the injured list and has scored 25 and 22 points in his last two outings. Guard Rod Strickland is still out with a broken hand, but expected to be back soon. Meanwhile, David Wingate returned to the lineup last week after being cleared of legal entanglements that sidelined him for several weeks.

Although the Jazz have proven they can beat the Spurs - they won all three games in Salt Lake this year by an average margin of 18 points - they haven't beaten San Antonio on the road since January, 1989 (five games). In that span, the Spurs have beaten the Jazz by an average margin of 15 points.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are trying to recover from two straight losses at Chicago and New York. But as the Mailman points out, Utah was ahead or tied in the fourth period before losing both games. "It was no fluke. We could easily be 6-0 on this trip," he said.

Malone continued, "If you would ask anybody if it would be possible to be where we are now (tied for first) going into this game, they would probably laugh. As a team we've proven - if not to the critics, at least to ourselves - that we can play .500 on the road."

Coach Jerry Sloan said the Jazz will sign forward Tony Brown to a second 10-day contract on Monday. Brown replaced the injured Blue Edwards on March 1. Edwards is expected to be out at least 10 days with a sprained ankle.

Malone, who became the center of a controversy the last time the Jazz played in San Antonio, says the "Pinata Incident" is over and he's not worrying about negative backlash.

Malone tore apart a promotional pinata that wore his number prior to the game on Jan. 12. "I didn't take too fondly to them having that," said Malone on Sunday. "I don't want to mess with anyone's religion or heritage and I apologized. But if someone just wants to crack a wise joke, I'm not up for that."

Malone continued, "They have to realize that someone might not have a great sense of humor that particular night, I didn't."

Although the sponsor of the pinata promotion, Taco Cabana, expressed displeasure at Malone's actions last January - sending a letter of protest to him - a change has been made. A pinata is still hung and broken open during halftime, but instead of having a specific player's number, it bears the number zero.

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(Chart)

1990-91 Jazz vs. Spurs

Jazz 103, Spurs 94

Jazz 124, Spurs 102

Spurs 112, Jazz 92

Jazz 104, Spurs 81