It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Utah Jazz would be here, in the last hours of the NBA season, struggling to fend off the great and small without regard to race, creed, or won-lost record. The Jazz, those great emancipators, have set the league free. Be it Sacramento or Denver, Orlando or Dallas, whatever your station in life, however humble your beginnings, you can still get a fair chance at beating the Jazz.

America. What a country.Wednesday night at the Salt Palace it was another goose-bump finish, as the Jazz came from 19 points behind to beat the Mavericks, 97-91. It featured all the familiar elements: periods of doubt and dismay; a slow start followed by a big deficit; a stirring comeback; a final epic struggle.

"Right now," said Jazz guard Jeff Malone, "we're not playing great basketball. We're not on top of our game. We have six or seven more games, and we need to pick it up."

Certainly the Jazz-Mavericks game had all the quirky intrigue fans have come to expect. Dallas has won only 26 games this year? Starting forward Rodney McCray is out with an injury? The Jazz have a chance to make up ground in the divisional race?


Regardless of the scare the Jazz put in their fans, when the game ended the Jazz were back in the race for the Midwest Division crown. With San Antonio losing to Portland, the Jazz moved within a game of the Spurs with six games remaining.

"I could care less about the playoffs at this point," said forward Karl Malone. "We'll just see what happens."

Which is exactly what they did in the first 21/2 quarters against the Mavericks. Dallas roared out of the blocks, making 13 of its first 20 shots and building the lead up to 10 points on three occasions.

By halftime it was obvious Mavericks' guard Derek Harper was on his way to a superb night. He scored 13 points in the first period and had 20 at the break. The lead sprang to 17 points, as the Jazz went through a run of missed shots, including four of nine free throws in the second quarter.

As the game progressed, Jazz publicists continually passed scores of the Portland-San Antonio game along the press table. Portland up by four . . . San Antonio up by two . . . Portland up by seven . . . There was no such suspense for the Jazz. The Mavericks' scored the first seven points of the second half, to go up by a whopping 60-41 score.

"I told my guys we can go home or we can compete," said Sloan. "For the most part we all understand that, and they came out and did the job."

Soon the Jazz comeback was on. They found themselves running, rebounding and forcing turnovers. Mark Eaton dived for a loose ball to tie up Dallas center James Donaldson. Blue Edwards landed a 20-footer and stole the ball for a layup. Karl Malone hooked a pass over his head to Edwards for a slam-dunk. All totaled, the Jazz scored 16 unanswered points, then followed a pair of Maverick free throws with four more, cutting the Dallas lead to 62-61 with 4:01 left in the quarter.

While Harper had toned his act down somewhat, he still managed a nine-point period, including five straight for Dallas. Harper's work ignited the Mavericks enough to give them a 72-65 lead going into the final period.

The fourth quarter was another scene from the Malone Files. Jeff and Karl scored 12 points apiece, and the Mavericks returned to their non-contender mode. Thurl Bailey's slam finally gave the Jazz the lead at 85-84 with 3:39 to go, and from there it was mostly a matter of waiting for the Mavericks' to crumble. Jeff Malone's 12-foot baseline jumper with 48 seconds left put the Jazz up 93-91.

"They made every big shot at the end," said Dallas Coach Richie Adubato.

Harper went up for a 20-footer, but it was short and Karl Malone came down with the rebound. He was fouled with 12.5 seconds to go, making both. Jeff Malone added two more free throws at the end.

Afterward, the Jazz players appeared relieved and drained. Jeff Malone walked to the sidelines and let out a long sigh during the final timeout, and when the game ended he tossed the ball in the air and raised his fist to the crowd. Edwards gave Harper an emotional hug.

"When you're in our position, where you've got a lot to lose, then you start to press," said the Mailman, who led the Jazz with 26 points. "And I think for the most part, we handled it pretty well."

At least they handled it predictably. They gave Dallas - just like everyone else - a fair chance to knock them off.

GAME NOTES: Utah has won 50 or more games for three straight seasons . . . Darrell Griffith's streak of non-appearances is up to four . . . John Stockton needs 53 assists in six games to break his own NBA assist record.