If you thought the Rockets' defensive scheme down the stretch looked familiar, you were right.

It was the same thing we've seen all season - double-team on Karl Malone, man-to-man coverage on everyone else except David Benoit, who was virtually ignored. That's why Benoit had a chance to shoot three open threes in the fourth quarter. If he'd made one of those, there's a good chance it would have been the Rockets committing desperation fouls in the final couple of minutes, instead of the Jazz.No one came right out and criticized Benoit afterward, but there were some comments that seemed to come close.

"We had some opportunities in the fourth quarter; we just didn't make baskets," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

"To their (the Rockets) credit, they hit most of their outside shots," said Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek.

About the only thing you might second-guess Sloan on was his substitution of Benoit for Adam Keefe two minutes into the fourth quarter. Keefe had played most of the third quarter and given the Jazz a big lift on the boards.

Sloan's reasoning? "I went with the guys I thought could shoot the perimeter shot and get to the basket." Benoit, in other words.

The fact is, however, that Keefe makes things happen, he hustles, he goes to the hoop better than Benoit when Malone is double-teamed on the low post.

The loss nullified a spectacular performance by Hornacek at the end of the second quarter. The Jazz had trailed for most of the first two periods and were behind 42-34 with 1:43 left before halftime. Malone scored on two jumpers to cut the deficit to four. With 2.8 seconds left, Hornacek launched a long three to pull the Jazz within one. The Rockets quickly inbounded the ball to Houston's Robert Horry, who ran over John Stockton, giving the Jazz the ball with .7 second remaining. Benoit inbounded to Hornacek, who threw up a tough three over a couple of Rockets that somehow found the hole.

"I knew I had to get it up quick," Hornacek said. "I just caught it, looked and fired."

The Jazz talked all season long about reaching the NBA Finals with this team, and some of them still did after Sunday's game - only with a little different slant.

"That's the hardest part to swallow after playing so well . . . not to get a chance to go to the Finals," Benoit said.

Antoine Carr said he was more disappointed for Malone than himself.

"It hurts, especially since we're such close friends, and I wanted to help him get that ring," he said.

"It's just shocking," Keefe said. "We have such a good team, and it all went down the drain in a hurry."

After getting knocked out of the playoffs in some past seasons, Malone has been prone to complain that the Jazz just weren't good enough, deep enough, to do any better. This time he sang a different tune.

"I really and truly have nothing negative to say about anything," the Mailman said. "I never played with a group of guys who did so much for each other. I can look back 50 years from now, and what I'll remember most is the 12 guys in this room."

He wasn't talking about the media.

Referee Steve Javie - who, by the way, made the Top 10 list of bad officials in a poll done earlier this season - went on a second-quarter whistle spree that cost the Jazz four points.

Having already made a couple of controversial calls, Javie whistled a foul on Tom Chambers (his second in six seconds), guarding Hakeem Olajuwon, as Keefe came over to help out. Keefe and Olajuwon tangled briefly, Olajuwon giving the Jazz forward a little shove. Javie stormed over and awarded Keefe a technical foul, and when Sloan protested, hit the Jazz coach with one and stood there defiantly, inviting anyone else who wanted one to speak up.

Said Keefe: "Nothing was getting out of hand. We were just standing there. It was an overreaction."

In most other cases like that this season, it's been a double technical - which is what Hornacek and Sam Cassell got earlier in the game for jawing at each other. But, of course, in most other cases, the other party isn't Olajuwon.

SHORT STUFF: This game had more traveling calls in the first half than in the previous four games, and only one was on Olajuwon . . . Olajuwon went down in the third quarter clutching his elbow, looking like he'd just broken it in three places. Turned out to be just a shot to the funny bone; guess that hurts more when you're seven-feet tall . . . The Rockets shot a staggering 28 free throws in the fourth quarter, and only the last eight of those came when the Jazz had to foul. Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler shot 10 each. "We really couldn't put a hand on them," Carr said.