It may have been the worst team in the NBA, but the Utah Jazz aren't usually accused of playing far above the competition. Wednesday night at McNichols Arena, the Jazz sweated out a tense fourth quarter, holding off the high-octane Denver Nuggets for a tense 106-98 victory.

With San Antonio idle, the Jazz moved back to a half-game lead in the Midwest Division race with a 43-22 record. Meanwhile, the Nuggets' dismal record dropped to 18-48.Thanks to a 14-point third quarter by Denver's Michael Adams, the Nuggets carried an 80-74 lead into the final period. An old bugaboo for the Jazz, allowing offensive rebounds, continually came back to haunt them as Denver collected 22 offensive boards for the game. But the tide began to turn for the final time in the see-saw game at the start of the last quarter. Utah scored the first seven points of the period, going ahead 81-80.

The contest remained tight until the eight-minute mark. Karl Malone, who led the Jazz with 31 points, took a pass from John Stockton and scored, drawing a foul. The free throw put the Jazz ahead 89-88, and they never trailed again.

Utah extended its lead to six points midway through the period, but the Nuggets shot their way back within three, 99-96, on a pair of Adams free throws with 2:49 to go. Adams led Denver's assult with 30 points.

Malone scored on another Stockton pass with a minute left for a 101-96 lead and added two free throws at the 32-second mark to keep the Jazz safely ahead. Malone also blocked a Jim Farmer shot in the waning seconds.

Malone got major help from several sources. Teammate Jeff Malone added 20 points, while Stockton added 19 points, 12 assists and six points. Center Mark Eaton had a season-high 18 rebounds.

However, poor free throw shooting early - they finished 27-of-38 - hurt Utah's plans to break the game open.

For the Mailman, the contest continued a run of success against the Nuggets. His 31 points was actually below the norm. He has scored 35 points or more in seven of the last nine games against the Nuggets.

After building an 11-6 lead, the Jazz fell into a run-and-gun routine with the Nuggets and soon found themselves trailing. "We try to get in a track meet with them . . . then we'll find ourselves in trouble," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan before the game began.

Reggie Williams and Adams made three-pointers to key a 14-2 run that put the Nuggets ahead 24-15. The lead expanded to 11 points, 32-21, early in the third period on Chris Jackson's scoop shot.

But as quickly as the Denver lead came, it vanished. The Jazz went on a 9-1 run to tie the score at 36 and went into the dressing room at halftime leading 50-45.

Malone led the Jazz with 16 points in the half, followed by Thurl Bailey's 12.

The slow start continued a penchant the Jazz have for playing poorly against poor teams. Although the Nuggets have the worst record in the NBA, the Jazz managed to lose in Denver 120-115 in January. That game provided Denver with its first win over a .500-plus team all year. "We've had some trouble against teams with under-.500 records," said Sloan.

The Jazz wasted several chances to build on their first-half lead by missing five of 11 free throws in the second period.

Utah now returns to the Salt Palace for three home games. Charlotte will be in town for Thursday's game, followed by a Saturday game with Minnesota and a Monday contest against Milwaukee.

JAZZ NOTES: Stockton needs 63 assists to reach the 1,000-assist mark for the fourth straight season . . . The Jazz are now three games behind last year's record win pace, but they've won 17 road games.