You can always tell when the playoffs are just around the corner in the NBA. The mood turns ornery. Nobody smiles. Nobody says "Have a nice day." Referees earn their frequent-flier miles. Coaches don't make it to the end of games. Players turn into the basketball equivalent of Mike Tyson.

The whole scene can often resemble rush hour traffic at the I-80 interchange.Take last night at the Salt Palace, for example. As yet another sellout crowd assembled to see if the Jazz could rack up their 11th straight win at home - they could, 112-90 over Denver - the atmosphere approached the Playoff Zone.

"It wasn't exactly playoff atmosphere, but it was close," said the Jazz's Karl Malone, who would no doubt love to have a bunch of 37-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist and four-steal nights in the playoffs, which is what he had last night.

Denver's Danny Schayes agreed with Malone, that the style of play was certainly close to playoff-caliber.

"Basically, it was halfcourt push and shove," he said.

That's the way the referees saw it as well. When they weren't calling fouls (53 of them), they were either breaking up potential skirmishes or listening to job critiques. The fact that these were two teams that had both played in Texas the night before - the Jazz at Houston, the Nuggets at Dallas - didn't help the mood, either.

Doug Moe, Denver's head coach, got two technicals and was thrown out of the game. Malone got a technical himself.

In fact, for a player who just scored 37 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four steals, Malone - who had his shoulder injured in a halfcourt offense collision with the Nuggets' David Greenwood - was in a rather contrary playoff kind of mood in the postgame locker room.

Asked if it had been an ornery game, Malone said, "I'm not even commenting on that." And asked if the Jazz-Nuggets are playing each other harder than normal because they could meet in the first round of the playoffs, he said, "I'm not sizing anybody up."

Still, the season has gotten to that stage where the playoff picture has moved into focus. And the Jazz do have a pretty clear picture of who the enemy will be. For the remaining 14 games of the regular season, most of their games will be against those teams.

They play the Lakers once, Seattle once, Phoenix once, Golden State once, Houston once, Portland once, and Houston and Denver twice more each. All are potential April/May/June opponents.

Their only game remaining against an Eastern Conference opponent is next Wednesday in the Salt Palace against Detroit. And their only games remaining against teams not battling for the playoffs are two against the Clippers and one against Sacramento.

If Denver stays where it is currently in the Western Conference standings - seventh place - and Utah stays where it is - atop the Midwest Division - the playoffs will begin with a Utah-Denver series.

Not that anybody's sizing anything up.

But as last night's atmosphere showed, no one's wanting to back down, just in case. Or shut up. Moe finally got the thumb with 2:37 remaining and the Nuggets reeling. Referee Bill Oakes had heard enough.

"I wanted to yell at somebody and I didn't feel like yelling at our players," said Moe. "So I yelled at the refs. What the . . . " Due to the Jazz's 28-15 third quarter - during which time the Nuggets made three of 18 shots from the field - a lot of fans filed out of the Salt Palace either before or with the Denver coach.

It was left for the Jazz's John Stockton to shed a bright light on the whole scene. The master of assists said, "You saw two tired teams out there tonight. Both are in the race, and both played last night. You know, I thought the refs did a great job keeping it in control."

He said that with a straight face, too. Which is yet another way you know the playoffs are just around the corner. Don't alienate any referees. At least not after you've won.