While the Midwest Division race turned a little goofy in Houston, the Jazz took a little side trip to find out that Seattle still owns them. Just barely, though.

The SuperSonics' third straight victory came complete with Dale Ellis struggling like crazy against Thurl Bailey, only to make two clinching free throws; coaches Bernie Bickerstaff and Jerry Sloan working the referees hard all game long and even getting after each other; and the Jazz coming back strong after losing bunches of turnovers, even with their new anti-trap scheme Tuesday night.Other than that, not much happened in Seattle's 101-96 victory in the Seattle Center Coliseum.

The real news of the day came from Houston, where the Rockets lost to Denver and stayed 41/2 games behind the Jazz. That also means the Nuggets are only five games back - and the Jazz play at Houston Friday and at home against Denver Saturday to open the last month of the season.

Surprisingly, after struggling, they had their chances against the Sonics. Down by 19 early in the second half, the Jazz cut the lead to two with 50 seconds left on a Karl Malone drive. Alton Lister rebounded an Xavier McDaniel miss to give the Sonics another shot, and Ellis leaned into Bailey while missing a jumper - foul on Bailey. Ellis made both free throws with nine seconds left, and the Jazz were done when Malone failed to in-bound the ball from midcourt on a five-second count.

"I should have let him shoot it," Bailey said, after an obviously tough call.

Ellis, who'd scored 46 and 31 in two November defeats of the Jazz, scored only nine of his 31 in the second half with Bailey guarding him, making 1 of 12 shots. "Once he got the ball, I wanted to be right there on him," said Bailey, who shifted to guard when Darrell Griffith and Bobby Hansen had foul trouble.

Malone had 29 points and Bailey 24, while Stockton had his usual big numbers against the Sonics - 21 points, 14 assists, seven turnovers. "We had some trouble with their switching defense," Stockton said.

Sloan had other theories. "He takes his share of punishment for a guy who handles the ball, I'll say that," he noted.

Throughout what became a very intense game, Sloan was in a running battle with referee Ronnie Nunn. Bickerstaff, meanwhile, hardly lived up to his announced intention of new, relaxed behavior. In his first game back after spending five days in a Milwaukee hospital with a bleeding ulcer, Bickerstaff rode the officials hard, too. When Bickerstaff complained that Sloan was influencing calls, Sloan yelled at him and Bickerstaff came down the sideline to challenge Sloan. They parted smiling, but not before more words.

"I'm back, I'm intense," Bickerstaff said later.

Tune in Monday, when the Jazz and Sonics close out the season series in the Salt Palace.

By then, the Jazz just might have figured out the Seattle defense. They had trouble on Opening Night, more trouble after spending three days in Seattle in late November and just as much trouble after practicing in Salt Lake Monday and heading north. Even though Sloan's scheme to give Stockton help bring the ball up showed promise, 16 first-half turnovers took a toll as the Sonics went up 60-45.

The damage started when the Sonics scored seven points in the last 20 seconds of the first quarter, and kept happening. "I thought we kind of panicked," admitted Sloan.

The Jazz made their move in the third quarter when Sloan was forced to play Bailey at guard because of the foul trouble, although that idea was already in the game plan. With Bailey shutting down Ellis, the Sonics had no halfcourt offense and the Jazz started chipping away.

Down 83-72 entering the fourth quarter, they came within five twice, only to have guard Nate McMillan's two offensive rebounds result in second-chance points. Finally, they made a charge with Mike Brown's layup, Stockton's two free throws and Malone's drive, but that's where the comeback stalled. Lister's rebound allowed the Sonics to use up 41 of the last 50 seconds before Bailey fouled Ellis, and the Jazz were done.

That cost them a chance to play overtime for the first time this season - they're the only NBA team to work just in regulation. Then again, just imagine if Malone's in-bounds violation had come with them down by just two.

This loss was frustrating enough. Seattle and Detroit are the only teams who haven't lost to the Jazz this season. Asked about the Sonics' success against them, Malone said, "Ask me after Monday's game."

JAZZ NOTES: Stockton had four steals after having overtaken Michael Jordan for the NBA lead (3.03 average). Stockton has lost 24 turnovers in three games against Seattle . . . On replacing the injured Jim Farmer, player personnel director Scott Layden said, "We're not going to do anything immediately. I don't think we would get an experienced enough guy, where he would help us." . . . It really happened: a delay-of-game technical foul. Malone was whistled twice, the second when the game was decided.