Mark Aguirre scored all of his 16 points in the first quarter. Vinnie Johnson scored a season-high 34 and was benched down the stretch. Isiah Thomas' biggest play of the game came after shooting an airball.

Other than that, just another average win for the Detroit Pistons.Never trailing and never leading by more than 11 Wednesday night in The Palace, the Pistons held off the Jazz 96-85.

"That game was very winnable; that's what's frustrating," said the Jazz's John Stockton.

After battling to stay close all game, the Jazz scored only 14 fourth-quarter points and lost this one in a series of five possessions. Even after Aguirre's first-quarter 16, Johnson's second-quarter 19 and all kinds of missed free throws and fumbles for the Jazz, they were right there - down by three after a Darrell Griffith jumper with 4:20 left.

After a timeout, Thomas checked in for Johnson and went one-on-one with Stockton, finally offering a long airball from the right baseline. While the shot clock kept running, the ball was knocked back to Thomas, who hit a short jumper. "It was a good bounce, a lucky bounce - somehow, the ball just ended up coming back to me," said Thomas.

"That was amazing . . . a huge play," noted Stockton. "All of a sudden, they get that basket, and now they're feeling good."

After Karl Malone missed a jumper, Thomas drove and passed to Rick Mahorn for a layup. When Mark Eaton missed a hook and Thomas drilled a jumper, the Pistons were coasting with a nine-point lead, and the Jazz were back to trying to salvage something this trip Friday at Miami.

They had their chances against the Pistons, starting with a scheduling break. They arrived in in the middle of Detroit's big home-and-home series with Cleveland this week, but the Pistons still outworked them in this meeting of the NBA's two best defenses.

Give Round I to the Pistons for holding the Jazz to their second-lowest scoring total of the season. They took away most of the Jazz's inside game with their physical style, denying the entry pass and forcing outside shots.

"I love to watch them play that way," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "They want you to take bad shots - you have to work hard because they're very good at banging you around."

Malone struggled for 27 points, reverting to outside shots. "I take the blame, because I probably took some quick shots," Malone said. Griffith and Thurl Bailey had 18 each for the Jazz; Griffith's offense was enough for Sloan to give him 34 minutes.

On the other end, Aguirre cooled off just before Johnson went wild and, while most of Johnson's points came against Griffith, Hansen was little more effective. Afterward, a testy Hansen crumpled a stat sheet after a quick glance and tossed a two-footer into the trash can; both the 34 points and his own 14 minutes - his lowest in seven games - were apparently disturbing.

With foul trouble limiting Thomas to eight minutes, Johnson took over in the first half. He was 8 of 10 in the second quarter, scoring 14 of his team-record 19 straight Pistons points over Griffith in a stretch of 7:06. The strategy? "Milk it until you go cold," smiled Johnson.

"He made a lot of tough shots with our hands right in his face," said Griffith.

Sloan adjusted for the second half, having his forwards force the screening Detroit player up higher to push Johnson beyond his range. That helped, but Sloan still figured Griffith and Hansen could have fought through the screens better.

"We were just hoping he'd miss - we were doing a lot of praying, I guess," Sloan said. "We just couldn't get to him. That takes a great deal of effort; you can't complain about it; you have to work harder."

Down 57-48 at halftime, the Jazz cut the lead to two late in the third quarter before Johnson hit a jumper over Hansen and Stockton made uncharacteristic mistakes - letting the clock run out, then missing two free throws as the fourth quarter opened.

The Pistons led by seven after Johnson's three-point play and a James Edwards jumper, but the Jazz came back one more time on Malone's rebound basket and Griffith's jumper. Starting with Thomas' second-chance shot, the Jazz faded again - the story of the game.

"Every time we got close, it seemed like we'd fall apart for a minute or so and have to do it all over again," said Eaton.

Result: a missed opportunity for the Jazz, even if this was not a bad road outing.

"That's playoff basketball," noted Griffith.

Sloan definitely took a playoff approach. Malone and Stockton each worked 44 minutes, the most they've played together since Opening Night. Mike Brown played just 11 minutes and Eric Leckner three as Sloan countered Chuck Daly's consistent nine-man rotation.

No doubt, this would be a battle in the NBA Finals - but all either team can count on for now is a Salt Palace meeting in four weeks.