The Jazz are breaking out Mike Brown for what could be a very meaningful weekend in the Midwest Division race. Brown, usually a backup center, will start at forward tonight in place of Marc Iavaroni as the Jazz play Houston in the Summit.

"I just thought maybe this was the time to do something different," said Coach Jerry Sloan."My job stays the same . . . I approach it the same way," says Brown, who will make his first start of the season.

Said Iavaroni, a little unhappily, "Whatever they want me to do, I do." The Jazz are 74-46 in two seasons when Iavaroni starts, but Sloan is displeased with the way the Jazz have started games lately.

Losses at San Antonio and Seattle have kept the Jazz from building their division lead, although Houston missed a big chance to make up ground by losing at home to Denver Tuesday. In turn, the Nuggets joined the race with that victory and will really have a say in things when they play in the Salt Palace Saturday.

The worst case for the Jazz: If Houston and Denver win twice each this weekend, they'll be only 21/2 and 3 games behind the Jazz with four weeks left in the regular season. If the Jazz at least split, meanwhile, they'll still be in good shape. While Sloan never talks about the race, he says knowingly, "I think the players know where they are."

Brown has played more and more in the last months, working a season-high 26 minutes at Seattle Tuesday, when he had eight points and seven rebounds and played down the stretch with Thurl Bailey at guard. As a starter, Brown will likely have to defend small forwards like Houston's Walter Berry and Denver's Alex English, besides guarding bigger people as a backup center. "I try to play position defense; if it's someone quicker than you, you have to step back a little," said Brown.

The irony for Brown is that his emergence with the Jazz comes at the time of year when he was buried on the bench in Chicago last season. He'd started 27 games for the Bulls at midseason before completely disappearing.

The move may also be a preview of the Jazz's eight-man playoff rotation. Unless Iavaroni plays as a reserve, Sloan will use four players - Karl Malone, Bailey, Mark Eaton and Brown - to cover three frontcourt positions. Asked if he expects to play much, Iavaroni said, "I don't push the buttons."

Iavaroni, whose streak of 45 starts ends, has played only 69 minutes in the last eight games. He spent most of November on the bench while Jose Ortiz was starting and was a token starter in December, but took on a bigger role in January. In a 10-game stretch, he played 20 or more minutes six times as Sloan used him in a regular rotation.

In the last two months, though, Iavaroni has appeared almost exclusively at the start of each half. In 15 of the last 24 games, he's played 10 minutes or less.

Approaching two games with division rivals, Bailey likes the Jazz's position. "The division title is right there for us," he says. "It's good to be on top - everybody knows they have to play hard to catch us, and we're not going to give it up."

This weekend could have a lot to say about that.