With the All-Star break approaching, we offer the first real sign that the Jazz are already watching the Midwest Division race. After Tuesday's win at Dallas, Karl Malone returned to the locker room from a TV interview and announced that Houston was losing to the Lakers.

Unless the Jazz can stay ahead of the Rockets, they'll have to worry about a whole lot of other teams. The Midwest winner will have at least the No. 2 seed for the Western Conference playoffs - but the team that finishes second in the Midwest could be as low as sixth in the conference, and even the division champ might only have the homecourt advantage for the first round. Teams like Phoenix and Seattle just won't go away.The Lakers are even having to worry about winning the Pacific Division. Before Wednesday's loss to Phoenix, Laker Coach Pat Riley gave his players a test on the standings. "Only one guy knew the record of our competition," Riley reported in the Los Angeles Times. "One guy didn't even know our record. I told them, you better get used to knowing them."

Especially Phoenix's. The Suns entered Saturday's game with Atlanta with 27 wins; they had 28 all last season. When they played in the Salt Palace in November and scored 121 points in a loss, they seemed entertaining but harmless. As they host the Jazz Monday, the all-new Suns are a genuine threat to win 50 games.

Tom Chambers is scoring (25.1) and rebounding (8.0) more than ever and the Suns have all kinds of other weapons. "If a team's going to try to outscore us, then they'll lose to us," said forward Eddie Johnson.

"They've got a real good team," Riley said. "I don't think teams know how to handle them yet, because they've changed since the start of the season in how they play together."


MOVING ON: From the Almost-a-Jazzman file we bring you Walter Berry, waived by New Jersey this week and signed by Houston _ his fourth team in three seasons. The Jazz would have drafted Berry at No. 15 in 1986, but Portland took him immediately ahead of them. Portland did well by Berry, trading him to San Antonio for Kevin Duckworth. The Spurs traded him for Dallas Comegys and the Nets, of course, received nothing for him.

"I didn't go into it blindly," Nets GM Harry Weltman said of acquiring Berry. "At the time, I felt the risk-reward ratio was heavily in our favor. Now, it's longer that way."


RADIO DIAL: The Jazz, who buy the air time and sell advertising for their nightly radio call-in show, have created a weekly "Dave Checketts Show" for the general manager.

The Jazz's marketing staff suggested the idea, but not just to make Checketts more visible now that he's the chief basketball man. Until last summer, Frank Layden did the show 52 weeks a year _ at least, that was the schedule. This season, at Layden's insistence, the Jazz people tried using rotating guests but wanted more consistency. "Frank absolutely did not want to do it any more," said Checketts. The new coach, Jerry Sloan, tapes a brief radio show before every game and was not interested in a regular call-in show, so Checketts has the billing.


AT RANDOM: Bill Laimbeer's one-game suspension for fighting ended his streak of 685 consecutive games played and left John Stockton as the NBA leader with 373 games. Stockton has never missed a game as a pro . . . Bart Kofoed is playing right away for the Rochester (Minn.) Flyers of the CBA, but he's a little rusty. In his second game, Wednesday at Quad City, the former Jazz guard was 3 of 14 from the field in 28 minutes. Friday at LaCrosse, he was scoreless (0 for 5) in 34 minutes. Kofoed does have 18 assists in three games, though . . . Look for the NBA and the Players Association to try to settle Kofoed's grievance with the Jazz, rather than go to arbitration . . .

Recently, Charles Barkley said, "The Hawks are the most selfish team in the NBA." Moses Malone replied, "(The 76ers) have the five most selfish guys in the league in one guy." Doc Rivers said, "I don't think about Charles. I don't think he thinks." The next epidose was Barkley wondering about the All-Star Game. "I'm scared to play with Michael (Jordan) and Dominique (Wilkins), because I know I'm not going to get any shots," he said . . . Riley wanted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his West All-Star team. "I don't want to take anything away from the (centers) selected, but I think he should have been voted in. His play recently has been worthy of it." . . .

NBA scout Marty Blake, on Charlotte's Rex Chapman being compared with Jerry West: "If I had $100 for every `next Jerry West' I've seen, I could have retired long ago. I think Chapman would do well to be the next Danny Ainge."