The Sonics on Tuesday night had their last quarterly visit of the regular season to the dentist.

The Utah Jazz, you know.There was the usual pre-visit apprehension, knowing the sweat, angst and pain of previous appointments.

This one turned out as well for the Sonics as they had any right to hope for, an 88-86 triumph that didn't cost them any teeth they couldn't afford to lose.

These four Jazz dental events are mandatory, of course, and in the big picture, all will be better off. But the necessity is never recalled once the first instrument enters the face.

The mind reels with questions: Why is it necessary to be strapped in? Why does the clock move so slowly? Where is the gas to numb the brain?

The Jazz grind, then ease, then grind again. Sparks, fragments, a little blood. These Utah people, they seem decent enough chaps, so why were the back muscles knotted so tightly for two hours?

Speaking of knots, there were plenty of them on forearms, noggins and chests. Tuesday night was one big clenched fist of a game.

These last two Western Conference champs know each other's plays and habits like kids in a big family know the old man's snore patterns.

Every pick is blown through, every pass is challenged, every offensive play is called out by the defense. There is no wiggle room. Points were so hard to come by, you'd think they were passwords for Bill Gates' personal log-on.

It was so crowded and unpleasant in the first half, the Sonics just backed away from the mayhem inside, peppering the Jazz with 6 of 13 3-pointers. They had to, they were 6-for-24 from closer range.

Funny thing was, the Jazz never adjusted. In the second half, the Sonics hit 6 of 10 treys, including bombs from Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins inside the final two minutes that turned an 82-80 deficit into an 86-82 margin that stood up.

"We did a terrible job getting to the open man," said Utah's laconic coach, Jerry Sloan. "We're not a very good 3-point defensive team because our big men allow (the Sonics) to get set up too low (in the post), so we have a long run to get to the shooters."

Then there was the emotional impact. After the Jazz did their usual fierce job of defending the middle, a Sonic howitzer would loop in through the mist of combat.

"From the looks on our faces, it looked like (the shot was worth) 10 points," Sloan said. "It was just three points. We let those little things bother us sometimes.

"We don't have to show everybody in the building we thought it was 10 points."

A stoic, resolute sort from his playing days, Sloan would never give the opponent the satisfaction of a wince, even if the guy had run his knee through Sloan's abdomen. Tuesday night, he wouldn't even concede the Sonics the satisfaction of winning a big game.

"They talked about it like it was a big game, and I guess it was," he said dryly. "I try not to talk about one game being bigger than another. I think people should play hard every time out."

True, but that sort of rational discourse tends to ignore the adrenal gland, which is where the Sonics play their games, for better or worse (see Golden State last week and two earlier losses to Dallas).

The Sonics knew this game was major - a Utah win would have been its fourth consecutive in Seattle. History tends to bear out the Sonic emphasis, because these two teams over the last several years judge themselves by each other.

In 1995-96, the Sonics won the season series 3-1, which coincided with their ascent to the NBA Finals against Chicago. Last season, it was the Jazz who won the series 3-1, including two wins at KeyArena. Utah went on to play the Bulls in the Finals.

Tuesday night's outcome provided one final knot, a 2-2 deadlock in the season series, which means that if the clubs end up tied in three weeks, the Sonics likely would get homecourt advantage in any series against the Jazz because of a superior conference record.

The pre-game rhetoric made much mention of the fact that no matter who ends up with the homecourt, any potential champion must win playoff games on the road. True enough, but only newcomers to the Sonic bandwagon would be oblivious to the epic seventh game of the 1996 Western Conference finals between the teams.

The screamfest happened at KeyArena, which was generally credited as the difference in a 90-86 win that put the Sonics in the Finals. The score and game was not unlike Tuesday night's, when Utah had chances to foreclose on the Sonics but fluffed a play here or a free throw there in the late going.

No one can say whether it was the homecourt, but the Sonics don't want to make the argument that it doesn't matter.

"This was a huge, huge ..." said Sonic coach George Karl, then caught himself, almost preternaturally sensing the soft-pedal going on down the hall by Sloan.

"No, let's say it's a positive asset for us," he said, calmly smiling.

It was a rare self-check by Karl. Apparently these excruciating dental visits with the Jazz have improved his oral hygiene.