They had failed to hold onto a 12-point second-half lead, failed to convert on a last-second shot at the end of regulation, and failed to score for the first 2:21 of overtime. In their first home game since Feb. 27, the Jazz weren't making a strong case for themselves. "I was saying to myself, `Can we get a break here?"' said Jazz guard John Stockton.

Soon they did. Stockton went on to score nine points in overtime, including a dramatic steal and layup with 27 seconds left, as the Jazz escaped with a 112-109 win over the Celtics, Wednesday at the Salt Palace. The win, combined with San Antonio's loss to the Clippers, put them back into a virtual tie for first place in the Midwest Division.Two days after losing their third straight game, the Jazz are back home, safe and (fairly) sound. Blue Edwards continues to sit out with a sprained ankle and Jeff Malone still has to put heat on his aching back. Karl Malone, was limping around afterward with a twisted ankle. But the Jazz aren't complaining. The late-game rush of Stockton points held off a furious Boston effort, led by the Ancient Ones, Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

While the teams played with the intensity of a pair of playoff-bound contenders, neither was running on a full tank of fuel. The Celtics were on the fourth of a five-game road trip, having dispatched the Clippers, Portland and Sacramento in order. But the miles and hours on the road were beginning to show. Meanwhile, Utah had only two days earlier completed a seven-game road swing. "Both teams looked a little tired, and rightfully so," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "You can't expect them to look like they've had four weeks off."

What they lacked in vigor, the teams made up in effort. In opening minutes, the Jazz built a 19-10 lead by making nine of their first 11 shots. Karl Malone, who finished with 37 points and 14 rebounds, was more than the Celtics' front line of Parish, Bird and McHale could handle on their creaking joints. Bird took the first try at Malone, who promptly went to work by scoring the Jazz's first two baskets of the game. Later in the period, McHale came off the bench to lead the Celtics back within five, and took his turn guarding Malone. Finally, Parish got the call. It was a pattern that would repeat itself during the night.

Regardless of who was on the Mailman, nobody had much success. Bird was too small, McHale and Parish too slow and maybe all of them too old. The closest they came to gearing him down came during a first-quarter scuffle when McHale grabbed Malone's uniform after driving for a shot and Malone responded by grabbing McHale's shirt. But the scuffle was quickly broken up and nothing more developed.

Despite Malone's monstrous numbers, the night's most memorable moments belonged to Stockton. At the end of the first half he sank a three-point shot with 1.5 seconds remaining to put the Jazz ahead 57-50. Although he missed his first two shots of overtime, Stockton went on to make three straight and add three free throws.

Bird had put the Celtics ahead 102-99 on a three-pointer with 3:20 left when Stockton drove inside to cut Boston's lead to one. He followed with a free throw on an illegal defense violation and 31 seconds later added a 20-foot jump shot to put the Jazz up 104-102.

While the Jazz were mounting their final drive, the Celtics were suddenly cold and ineffective. After Bird's three-pointer, they went three minutes without scoring a basket. During that span they were called on an illegal defense violation, committed two turnovers and fouled twice. "I thought our offense, once again, kicked our butt," said Celtics' Coach Chris Ford. "Our defense was good, the effort was there, but we got in a frenzy too often offensively."

Utah never trailed after Stockton's jumper. Thurl Bailey, who added 21 points and eight rebounds, contributed a driving finger roll with 1:17 to go. The clincher came with 27 seconds left when Stockton slapped the ball away from Brian Shaw into Malone's hands, then raced downcourt for a layup, boosting the Jazz lead to 108-102.

There were a few moments of suspense yet to play. Bird, who led the Celtics with 25 points and nine rebounds, hit a three-pointer at the 22-second mark, but Stockton then made two more free throws. Bird tossed in a pair with 12 seconds to go, cutting Utah's lead to 110-107, but Delaney Rudd sank both free throws at the 11-second mark to put the Jazz up by five. McHale closed out the scoring with two free throws.

"He's (Bird) a great, great player and what makes him so good is he never lets the clock faze him," said Sloan.

Boston's other two gracefully aging players, McHale and Parish, finished with 20 and 17 points, respectively. Reggie Lewis, a representative of the youthful part of the Celtics, added 18.

Malone, who twisted his ankle with 2:56 left to go in the half, sat out the rest of the second period, but returned in the third quarter. He skipped post-game interviews in favor of a treatment on his ankle. Assistant trainer Terry Clark said Malone's ankle was only slightly sprained.

While the Celtics close out their five-game road trip with a game at Washington, the Jazz await a Friday contest against Pacific Division leader Portland in the Salt Palace. "For us, this week is like an extended road game. Nothing like coming off a road trip and playing Portland and Boston," said Stockton. Unless it's coming off a road trip and losing to Portland and Boston.

GAME NOTES: The Jazz trail the alltime series 13-32 with Boston, but have won four of five in the Salt Palace . . . The Jazz are 12-11 alltime against Boston at home . . . Utah has won four of the last 11 games with the Celtics . . . Utah hasn't lost to Boston in the Salt Palace since January, 1988.