A letdown after a perfect five-game road trip - was as inevitable as the sun rising in the East or a fight breaking out on the "Jerry Springer Show."

An undermanned Houston Rockets club, led by a guy who's just this side of forty, put a major scare into the Utah Jazz Monday night in the Delta Center. After all, Houston led at the end of the third quarter - which meant the Jazz would lose, right? In the 13 previous games when Utah trailed at the end of three, the Jazz were an embarrassing 0-13, so it didn't look good for the home team at that point."This is the toughest game to play, the first one back (from a long road trip)," said Karl Malone. "You come back home, you relax, you get into a comfort zone and you can get beat."

But this time, however, the Jazz didn't get beat. Thanks, yet again, to Malone having a monster game, the Jazz escaped with a 100-93 victory. The Mailman pulled down a season-high 21 rebounds and scored 29 points.

"In the last six or seven games, (Malone) has probably played as well as I've ever seen him play," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

It was Utah's seventh win in a row and its 14th in its last 15. The Jazz improved to 44-16 - the exact record they had a year ago after 60 games. The Rockets, who played without Hakeem Olajuwon, Mario Elie and Kevin Willis due to suspensions for their roles in a fight during a game against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, fell back under 0.500 at 30-31.

The victory also gave the Jazz a 4-0 series sweep over the Rockets, but Houston is anything but intimidated about the possibility of playing the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs next month. In fact, the Rockets would welcome a rematch of last season's Western Conference finals.

"I don't think they want to play us," said Jazz killer Eddie Johnson, who poured in 37 points against the Jazz less than two months before his 39th birthday. "They see we can come in without Kevin (Willis) and Hakeem (Olajuwon) and have a good chance to beat them."

Another aging Rockets star, Clyde Drexler, offered similar sentiments. "I'd like nothing better than (to meet the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs)," he said. "This is a team we can beat."

Added Charles Barkley, "We will probably play in the first round and I look forward to that. . . . This was kind of a preview of the playoffs."

If it was a playoff preview, the first round should be interesting - especially if Olajuwon plays.

He missed three of the four regular season games against the Jazz.

But stars missing games is nothing new to the Jazz of late. In the two previous Jazz games, the New Jersey Nets were without their lone all-star Jayson Williams, while the Milwaukee Bucks had three of their four best players - Glenn Robinson, Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill - out with injuries.

"We're playing very well, but we've also been in some good situations," said Jazz forward Adam Keefe. "On the other hand, we've been capitalizing and that's part of the game."

It didn't necessarily look like the Jazz would capitalize on the Rockets being shorthanded on Monday. Johnson was on fire in the first half - hitting 8-of-10 of his shots (4-of-5 3-pointers) for 25 points. The Jazz trailed by 10 at the break, 57-47.

"He was on," said Bryon Russell, one of several Jazzmen who attempted to guard E.J. "It's hard to stop someone who is in a zone like that."

The Jazz cut the gap to four points in the third quarter before making a major rally in the fourth. Johnson's final bucket - giving him 37 points on the night - came with 7:58 to play, giving the Rockets an 89-81 lead.

From there the Jazz took over. Antoine Carr scored two of his 13 points on a rebound bucket. Malone hit a 16-foot jumper. John Stockton - who was 1-for-9 from the field at one point - hit a 17-footer. Then Russell, after a pair of Malone offensive rebounds, hit a 17-footer to knot the game at 89-all. A Carr free throw with 3:58 to play gave the Jazz their first lead since the opening quarter.

The Rockets remained stone cold and the rally continued. They scored exactly four points in the final 7:57 of the game.

Back-up point guard Brent Price fouled out and was hit with a technical with 1:43 to play and the Jazz leading by only three points. A pair of Stockton free throws increased the Jazz lead to five. Price then took out his frustrations by throwing a cup of water on several Jazz fans behind the Rocket bench.

But that wasn't the only show of emotion from the Rockets toward the fans. Johnson had a running, trash-talking dialogue going with various members of the crowd. And Barkley, at one point, gave some hecklers a middle-finger salute.

The Rockets have it right. It would make for an interesting first-round playoff series.

The Jazz, meanwhile, still have 22 regular season games to go before the playoffs begin - starting with the Sacramento Kings in the Delta Center on Wednesday night.

*****

Additional Information

Jazz 100, Rockets 93

FG FT Reb

HOUS Min M-A M-A O-T A PF Pts

Barkley 42 3-11 4-4 2-11 3 5 10

Rhodes 14 0-1 0-0 0-1 0 3 0

Bullard 24 2-7 0-0 0-3 1 1 5

Maloney 34 3-8 2-2 0-0 2 1 9

Drexler 33 6-15 0-0 0-5 5 4 15

Johnson 42 13-18 7-7 0-3 2 2 37

Harrington 29 5-7 0-3 1-7 0 3 10

Price 22 3-5 0-0 0-2 7 6 7

Totals 240 35-72 13-16 3-32 20 25 93

Percentages: FG .486, FT .813. 3-Point Goals: 10-22, .455 (Johnson 4-7, Drexler 3-5, Price 1-2, Maloney 1-3, Bullard 1-4, Barkley 0-1). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked shots: 1 (Bullard). Turnovers: 11 (Johnson 3, Barkley 3, Drexler 2, Rhodes, Bullard, Maloney). Steals: 4 (Johnson 2, Drexler, Bullard). Technical fouls: Drexler, 7:27 third; Price, 1:43 fourth. Illegal defense: 1.

FG FT Reb

UTAH Min M-A M-A O-T A PF Pts

Malone 42 10-18 9-12 6-21 6 3 29

Keefe 22 0-2 4-4 2-6 1 1 4

Foster 13 2-5 0-0 0-3 0 1 4

Hornacek 24 6-12 2-2 1-2 4 3 15

Stockton 31 4-12 2-4 0-1 5 0 10

Eisley 17 2-5 1-2 0-0 0 2 6

Carr 28 6-10 1-2 4-6 1 1 13

Anderson 26 4-7 2-2 3-4 3 2 10

Russell 28 2-9 4-4 2-4 2 3 9

Morris 9 0-3 0-0 0-1 1 1 0

Totals 240 36-83 25-32 18-48 23 17 100

Percentages: FG .434, FT .781. 3-Point Goals: 3-10, .300 (Hornacek 1-1, Eisley 1-1, Russell 1-4, Foster 0-1, Stockton 0-1, Morris 0-2). Team Rebounds: 11. Blocked shots: 2 (Malone, Anderson). Turnovers: 9 (Malone 2, Stockton 2, Keefe, Hornacek, Eisley, Carr, Morris). Steals: 7 (Russell 2, Malone, Keefe, Hornacek, Anderson, Morris). Technical fouls: Malone, :47.2 second. Illegal defense: 1.

Houston 25 32 21 15- 93

Utah 19 28 27 26-100

A-19,911 (19,911). T-2:09.

Officials-Hue Hollins, Tim Donaghy, Bruce Alexander.