Just one week ago Karl Malone was asked what would be the keys to the Jazz returning to the NBA Finals.

The Mailman, with hesitation, said, "One of the keys is Greg Ostertag. I'll say it and I'll put the pressure on him. He's a key for what we want to do."That key won't be on the court for a month or so as it recovers from a stress fracture to its left leg. Judging by the first two games without the 7-2 center, Jazz fans may feel the team will be just fine without him. After all, the Jazz won by an average of 19 points. They even beat the team with the best record in the league, the Seattle SuperSonics, by 20 on the road.

The reality, however, is that the Jazz will miss Ostertag plenty. They'll miss him more against some teams - the ones with dominating big men - than they will against others like Boston and Seattle. In the next three weeks the Jazz will play San Antonio's triple towers of David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Will Perdue, Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon twice and Miami with Alonzo Mourning.

Greg Foster and Antoine Carr will simply be at size disadvantages on most nights. Both are prone to foul trouble as well. Neither is a strong rebounder. Carr can block some shots, but not at the level of an Ostertag.

Sure, Foster and Carr are better offensive players, but the Jazz will miss Ostertag's defensive presence. Malone will be called upon to play center on occasion as the team will be forced to go small with Adam Keefe or Bryon Russell as the power forward.

Expect the Jazz to lose two or three games they may not have otherwise while Ostertag is out.

But that should be the least of Utah's worries. A bigger problem may be how long it will take Ostertag to get back into game shape once he's given the green light to play again.

For Tag, getting in game shape is not easy. He admitted himself that he wasn't in the condition he should have been coming into training camp in the fall. It was basically two months into the season before he got into the shape he needs to be in to be most effective.

The Jazz need Ostertag healthy - and in shape - by the time the playoffs roll around - which, believe it or not, is only two months away. He needs to work out on stationary bicycles and in other non-impact ways so that when he is cleared to play, it won't take another two months to get back into game condition.

Otherwise, the Jazz may have a 7-2 key to an early summer.

Trading lightly

The trade deadline is Thursday night. While the Jazz would like to get another big body to help in the rebounding department, the cost likely would be too high. Scott Layden says he'll talk but doesn't expect any movement on the Jazz front.

When Friday morning rolls around, expect the Jazz roster to look identical to the one you see today.

Looking back

The Jazz went 3-0 for the week - one game better than predicted - with home victories over the Clippers and Celtics and a road win in Seattle. The Jazz showed disturbing lapses in the two home games - during the second and fourth quarters against the Clips and during the entire first half versus the Celtics. Still, they were able to beat both sub-.500 teams with points to spare.

Looking ahead

Utah plays a couple of Eastern Conference foes with winning records at home before a big divisional battle in San Antonio on Saturday. Both the Charlotte Hornets and the New York Knicks are nursing injuries. It will be strange seeing the Knicks play without center Patrick Ewing (broken wrist) in the lineup. Still, the Hornets and Knicks have talent and are capable of pulling an upset in the Delta Center. The Spurs led the Jazz by 21/2 games just a week ago, but are now behind by a half-game in the standings. The Jazz will have their hands full with San Antonio's size - especially without Ostertag.

Projected record for the week: 2-1, which would put the Jazz at 36-16.

Monday, Feb. 16


7 p.m.

Home game


Wednesday, Feb. 18

New York

6 p.m.

Home game


Saturday, Feb. 21

San Antonio

6:30 p.m.

Road game