After ransacking the Houston Rockets in the Salt Palace Wednesday night, the Jazz dug in and faced the real test in the locker room afterward.

The challenge: trying to sound convincing, in saying the Midwest Division race is still a race."It's only one game, it's not the end of the world," said Coach Jerry Sloan, leading the way.

"We just took a step in that direction, but we're far from winning the division," added Karl Malone.

The 117-80 victory gave the Jazz (37-23) a four-game lead over the Rockets with 22 games left in the season, as they continue this five-game homestand Friday against Golden State. If the Rockets had won, they'd have cut the lead to two games, besides knowing they could make up that difference with two head-to-head chances left against the Jazz.

Instead, they crumbled after an early rally and were gone forever after the middle of the second quarter. "One of those games," mused Coach Don Chaney.

By the numbers: This was the Rockets' worst loss since a 56-pointer to Seattle in December 1986 and the Jazz's biggest win since a 40-pointer over the L.A. Clippers in January 1986.

On the court, the Jazz did make a statement about the race. "We definitely let 'em know what was happening," allowed Darrell Griffith, who reached 11,000 career points with a three-pointer in the second quarter.

Now, unless the Jazz collapse in the next six weeks and Dallas or Denver catches them in the Midwest, their immediate goal will be pulling ahead of Phoenix for the second-best record in the Western Conference, assuring them a homecourt advantage through the second round of the playoffs. At the moment, the Jazz are tied with Seattle for fourth overall, one game behind the Suns.

The Rockets, meanwhile, are not officially out of the division race, but they are struggling and find themselves still in the playoff field by only two games over Portland. They've lost eight of nine games, and Chaney says of the race, "It's like an uphill battle for us . . . we've backed ourselves into a corner."

While Akeem Olajuwon managed 20 points and 10 rebounds and first-time starting forward Walter Berry added 17 points, the Jazz knocked them aside. Malone had 29 points and 14 rebounds and Thurl Bailey followed with 24 points, while John Stockton had a below-average game against Houston - 18 points, 17 assists, three steals.

Below average? Through four games against the Rockets, Stockton checks in at 19.8 points, 17.3 assists and 5.0 steals. That's against former All-Star guard Sleepy Floyd, who burned Stockton with three three-pointers - but made 3 of 15 shots overall.

The Rockets should have figured they were in trouble when the Jazz scored the game's first 11 points, working for inside shots and avoiding the wrath of Sloan. "I've tried to tell our guys: You can't take a bad shot, just to take a shot," he said later.

Remember Indiana? Settling for outside shots vs. going inside, according to Sloan, pretty much accounts for the Jazz's extremes in the last 10 days - the 39-point loss at Indiana, the Jazz's worst in 268 games, and this win, their easiest in 280 games.

The Rockets did make a run behind Olajuwon and Berry to finish the first quarter down by only 27-25, but they made just 5 of 20 shots in the second quarter, scoring 12 points. Berry's inside basket and Olajuwon's dunk were their only scores in the last 7:45 of the half, resulting in the Jazz's 54-37 lead.

"We lost our composure on both ends," said Chaney. "They took advantage of every mistake we made."

More of the same in the third quarter, when the Jazz broke open the game with this sequence: Malone beats the shot clock with his third three-pointer of the season, Malone blocks Berry's shot at the other end, Bailey drives to put the Jazz up by 20 and counting. The Jazz defense allowed only 36-percent shooting, with Mark Eaton turning in 14 rebounds and six blocks. "We just really shut 'em down," said Malone. "We didn't let 'em do anything."

Sloan's big-game playing rotation was on display, as he kept rookie Eric Leckner on the bench until the fourth quarter and used nine players, counting Marc Iavaroni's brief appearances at the start of each half. Mike Brown became a two-position reserve, finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes. "Experience is a big factor now," Sloan noted. "We've got to pretty much go with those guys."

Sloan also stayed with his pattern of keeping the regulars in the game, long after the issue is decided. That's probably more a result of his being paranoid than malicious, but the fact is, Malone, Bailey and Stockton were on the floor with 3:08 left and the Jazz up by 28. Then again, the lead only widened after Jose Ortiz and the boys took over.

No doubt, the Jazz, who are now 14 games over .500 for the first tive ever, responded to a big game - even if they tried to downplay everything afterward. "I just hope this game wasn't a focus game for us," said Stockton, "where we say, `Forget (the race), we've got it.' "

We do know this much: It's theirs to lose.