For two and a half quarters it was a close ballgame. Despite never having led, the Jazz closed to within a point of the Phoenix Suns, 70-69, on a jumpshot by Blue Edwards with 6:33 left in the third period.

But then a Phoenix whirlwind by the name of Kevin Johnson took over.And just like that, the game was over. The smooth point guard scored 14 points in less than three minutes to change a close contest to a relatively easy win for the Suns, 131-117.

Johnson had perhaps the best overall game of his career. In addition to scoring a game-high 37 points, he added his season high in assists - 20 - to account for 77 of the Suns' points. He also had two steals.

With plenty of help from the X-man, Xavier McDaniel, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds, and Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle, who scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, Johnson paced the Suns to the most points scored against the Jazz this year, the previous high being 126 by the Denver Nuggets.

The biggest plus for the Jazz Tuesday night, other than knowing they'd be leaving Phoenix early the next morning, was the loss by the San Antonio Spurs at home against the Los Angeles Lakers.

So, with 11 games to play, the Jazz didn't lose any ground to the Midwest Division Spurs, who they trail by a game. They did, however, lose a half game to the idle Houston Rockets, which put the Rockets in a second-place tie with the Jazz at 46-25. The Spurs are 47-24.

Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan wasn't really interested in dwelling much on the loss to the Suns, not with a game against a rested L.A. Clipper squad tonight in the Salt Palace followed by a weekend trip to Dallas and Houston.

A win in Phoenix was probably a longshot anyway, based on Jazz performances in the Veterans War Memorial Coliseum, where the Jazz have now lost 10 straight regular season games dating back to 1986.

What's concerning Sloan now - and undoubtedly his players - is turning around the trend they're in now, a series of three very uninspiring performances, all resulting in losses to the Clippers, Sacramento Kings, and now the Suns.

This is the time of year, Sloan inferred, when teams find out how good they really are.

"It's just a matter of how tough you are mentally and physically. We'll see what we've got left."

After a first half where the Jazz trailed by just three points - 57-54 - despite having only nine rebounds, the Jazz didn't seem to have much left in the second 24 minutes. And Sloan said that dictated part of his strategy.

"Our kids are tired," he said. Because of that, he decided to give his own All-Star point guard, John Stockton, a breather with the Jazz down by five, 76-71. By the time Stockton returned three minutes later, the Suns had made their decisive move behind Johnson and had an 11-point lead, 88-77.

Stockton led the Jazz with 28 points - 19 of them coming in the first half. Karl Malone, who played only 30 minutes because of foul trouble had 27 points and Jeff Malone 20. Mike Brown added a season-high 16.

But while the Jazz shot 56 percent, it only kept them from getting routed as the Suns shot 58 percent and outrebounded the Jazz 44-23. The 23 rebounds was an all-time low at the Phoenix arena.

The Jazz simply didn't do a good enough job on defense, Sloan said.

Center Mark Eaton seconded his coach's comments. "We gave up too much inside stuff. We didn't take away their drives to the basket. We should have forced them to beat us from outside."

Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons obviously, was pleased with his team's performance.

"Certainly in the second half, KJ stepped up and started taking it to the basket . . . it was a big game for both of us. We needed this to break even with them in the season series," he said.

As the standings are now, the Jazz would face the Suns in the first round of the playoffs.

But Sloan says he's not interested in looking toward the playoffs, there are too many important games left during the regular season to look that far ahead.

"When you get into the big part of your season that's when you've got to reach down and get it done," Sloan said.

Presumably the big part of season is here now. Jazz followers may find out tonight against the Clippers whether the team is going to make a late-season charge.


(Additional information)

Midwest countdown

Here are the matchups remaining for the top three NBA Midwest Division teams.

Jazz Spurs Rockets

Clippers at Bucks Mavericks

at Mavericks at Bulls at Nuggets

at Rockets at Timberwolves Jazz

Magic Warriors Trail Blazers

Mavericks Trail Blazers at Warriors

at Lakers at SuperSonics at Kings

Nuggets at Suns at SuperSonics

Kings Clippers at Trail Blazers

SuperSonics at Rockets Spurs

Lakers at Nuggets at Mavericks

at Warriors Mavericks Nuggets