Best of times, worst of times Dept.:

Here were the Jazz, cruising through a 42-point third quarter against the Seattle SuperSonics in the Salt Palace Thursday night, doing everything they could to improve their picture for the playoffs. The Sonics were looking for the nearest airport. The Jazz were playing defense. Even Jerry Sloan was satisfied. Finally, they stopped the bleeding long enough to award the game ball to John Stockton, after he dished off a pass to Tony Brown for a layup that gave Stockton 1,135 assists for the season, yet another all-time record. Does it get any better than this?But through all this, there was something missing. Namely, an announcement concerning the San Antonio-Houston game that started in Houston an hour ahead of the Jazz-Sonics game.

No news meant bad news, and there was no news. Not when the Jazz finished their 42-18 demolition act in the third quarter. Not as they coasted to their 130-103 win, scoring the fourth highest total and third most lopsided victory of the season. Not as Stockton left the floor with the game ball, looking uncomfortable as he held it longer than 24 seconds.

If San Antonio had been beaten by Houston - as Jazz fans everywhere were hoping - the announcement would have come at least by the fourth quarter.

It never came. Houston, historically a thorn of a franchise to Utah, didn't do itself any favors with its 102-95 loss - the score that was never announced - but it didn't do the Jazz any favors either.

Now, all the Spurs have to do is win at Denver - against a Nuggets team decimated by injuries and surgeries - and at home against a Dallas team that was eliminated from the playoffs around Valentine's Day, and the Midwest Division title is theirs.

Even if the Jazz win their two remaining games - Saturday in the Salt Palace versus the Lakers and Sunday at Golden State - they'll fall one game short of the division title for the second year in a row.

As Jazz guard Delaney Rudd - who had eight points and five assists in 19 minutes against the Sonics - said, "Nothing's decided yet. it doesn't mean someone else won't beat the Spurs." But he didn't look convinced that might happen. Neither did Karl Malone, who had 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and who said, "We start on the road (in the playoffs), we start on the road. So be it."

A more positive, and current, locker room topic was the win over Seattle. It's not every night you beat a team headed for the playoffs by 27, and it's not every night your point guard pushes the edge of the assists envelope to even further unexplored ground.

Stockton's game-ending season total of 1,136 assists is two better than the record 1,134 he had last year.

Stockton, as is his custom, downplayed the record. So what if nobody in the history of the game has handed out assists at this rate? So what if Cousy never did it, or Oscar, or Magic, or Isiah? So what if the IRS wouldn't blink if Stockton put down all his Jazz teammates as his dependents?

"I'm glad to get it over with," said Stockton in the locker room, getting around to the subject after a leisurely shower. No, he didn't know the pass to Brown was the record-breaker. No, it didn't matter who the pass was to. Yes, all the fuss was a distraction. For Stockton, it's always better to give than receive, and that includes publicity.

He said he didn't hear the San Antonio-Houston score until he was in the shower. "That's not good news, but it's not the end of the world, either," he said. "We've got to keep it in perspective, we've got to keep playing."

He got more animated when the subject switched from his assists record to the 75 points the Jazz scored in the second half against the Sonics.

"We've been trudging through mud," Stockton said. "Now we're slowly pulling ourselves out of the mud. We're getting our legs back."

There are a lot worse times for that to happen. The bad news for the Jazz as the regular season heads into its final weekend is that Houston didn't come through with its assist. The good news is that Stockton came through with his - and it seemed to be contagious.