THE JAZZ PLAYED Michael Jordan last night in the Salt Palace. As sportscaster Carl Arky said, Jordan's like Santa Claus. He comes to town once a year.

Last year's appearance was particularly memorable, when Jordan led the Chicago Bulls - they're the guys to a win over the Jazz by scoring 46 points and making Jazz coach Frank Layden so livid over what he perceived as Jordan's protected status that he talked himself into a fine from league headquarters.At any rate, the Jordan Bulls returned last night,

the Salt Palace was sold out, replete with standing-room-only, and all in all it turned out to be a pleasant enough evening for the throng. For two reasons. One, the Jazz won. And two, Jordan did something heroic in the losing cause.

"How can anyone go home unhappy?" said Layden, who had nary a discouraging word about the officiating this time.

Jordan's heroics were of a different sort than his usual gravity-defying, high-wire act that averages 36 points a game and leads the NBA. The highlight-film action, as a matter of fact, was quite rare. Normally Jordan is a photo opportunity every time down the court, basketball's answer to Yosemite Falls or the Grand Canyon, photographically speaking. But for this game, as he scored 33 points, most of his moves were of the 12-foot jumpshot variety. He did have a spectacular dunk in the second half over the Jazz's Mike Brown, a teammate of Jordan's last year. But that was about it for the awesome stuff.

What he did that was heroic was this: He played the second half.

Even though he had a great excuse not to.

Just before the end of the first half, Jordan had a rare case of bad timing. His head happened to be directly underneath Karl Malone's elbow as Malone was swooshing down from grabbing a rebound under the Bulls' basket. Down went Jordan with a gushing nosebleed and what looked like possibly a broken nose. If Geraldo Rivera's nose could be broken in a TV studio by somebody from the Ayrian Nation who was about half Karl Malone's size, certainly Michael Jordan's could be too.

He was hustled off the court by the Bulls' trainer, his head in a towel. He looked a lot like Michael Spinks after the last Tyson fight.

Word from the locker room was that they were having trouble stopping the bleeding, and Jordan was detained there as the second half began.

At 11:07 of the third quarter he returned and entered the game. At 10:47 he scored his first basket of the half. In the quarter he got 10 points.

It didn't matter much. The Jazz kept extending their lead. Jordan's return did not stop the Bulls' bleeding. This was shaping into their fourth straight loss, all on the road during a miserable six-game swing out West.

And Michael Jordan, the Air Man, did not have to be a part of the inevitable.

He had an alibi. An excuse from the doctor.

"He could have sat it out. He could have said he wasn't going to play the second half. But he didn't," said Layden.

He faced the Jazz with his nose stuffed full of cotton. X-rays could wait.

In a league where injured reserve is sometimes looked on as a luxury, not a sentence, Jordan is an exception. This is the same player who refused to sit out the last games of the season two year's ago, insisting that he be allowed to play on an ankle that the doctor's warned might not be all the way healed.

The Jazz were on a homecourt roll. That was obvious. Everyone was working on his specialty. Mark Eaton was getting 17 rebounds, John Stockton was getting 17 assists, including a franchise record 11 in the second quarter; Thurl Bailey was almost perfect, making 5-5 free throws and 9-11 field goals for 23 points . . . and then there was Darrell Griffith, doing his own Michael Jordan impersonation with 32 points while doing a decent job of guarding Jordan - with a little help from Malone.

Griffith paid tribute to Jordan after the game. "If you don't get up for it when you're playing against Michael Jordan, then you shouldn't be in the league," he said.

Jordan not only brings out the people, he brings out the best in people.

"Good thing he wasn't seriously injured," said Layden, "If he goes down, it costs the NBA a lot of money."

From the looks of Jordan's penchant for playing at all costs - even when doom is inherent in Salt Lake City in the midst of a lengthy road swing; even when he has a bona fide excuse - the NBA doesn't have to worry about the work record of this particular employee.