Loss may determine West's No. 1 seedIn time, the story of how the West was won may date back to Seattle's 88-86 win over Utah Tuesday at Key Arena.

Facing a season-series loss and its accompanying effect in the event of an NBA playoff tiebreaker, the Sonics prevailed by doing what they do best - making 3-pointers. The NBA's top long-range shooters (39.9 percent average) made 12 of 23 beyond the arc to win the battle for best record in the Western Conference.At 54-18, Seattle is currently one-half game better than Utah (53-18) as the regular season enters its final 21/2 weeks. By earning a 2-2 split in the season series, the Sonics reclaimed the tie-breaker advantage over the Jazz by virtue of a better record against conference opponents.

"Tonight we went at it and we won a big game. But we've got a lot of basketball left this season," Sonics coach George Karl said. "I told the team after the game `This hasn't won us anything. This has just won us an advantage.' "

The capacity crowd of 17,072, however, saw things differently. Most stood throughout the final minute and began celebrating as soon as John Stockton's potential game-tying shot at the buzzer fell short.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, whose team could have taken a two-game advantage in the loss column and had the tie-breaker in hand with a win, downplayed the significance of the loss. His theory? No single game is bigger than any other on the 82-game schedule.

After the game, the mood in Utah's locker room reflected Sloan's philosophy. Things were very businesslike.

"It would have been a big game had we won it," Jeff Hornacek said. "I think it was a bigger win for them than it was a loss for us. (Seattle) needed the win. We'd have loved to have it, but it just didn't work out that way."

Trailing 71-63 with less than 10 minutes remaining, the Jazz used a 14-5 run for the first of four lead changes down the stretch. The final exchange came with less than two minutes remaining when Karl Malone hit a 16-foot jumper to give Utah an 82-80 lead in the hotly contested affair. Unfortunately for the Jazz, it wasn't enough to extend their five-game winning streak and lead in the West.

"I've been in more physical games than this. The Laker game was more intense than this one," Malone said. "This was kind of a typical game. We had opportunities. It wasn't anything they did. We just didn't capitalize."

In wild West terms, Utah brought a knife to a long-range gun fight. And though the Jazz nearly pulled it off, going 2-of-10 from the 3-point line wound up taking its toll in a half-court contest that featured only six fast break points between the two teams.

"A couple of times we did a terrible job coming out of the double-team," Sloan said. "We're not a very good 3-point defensive team."

Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins hit back-to-back shots from behind the line to give Seattle the lead for good. Schrempf's go-ahead basket came with 1:42 remaining.

"I got a couple of shots to go down. They gave me a three," he said after scoring a game-high eight points in the fourth quarter. "They gave me one in the first half, wide open, and dared me to shoot it. I wasn't ready for it. So I just felt if Vin (Baker) kicked it out to me I was going to shoot the ball. I was ready for it and I made it. That helped a lot."

Schrempf finished with 17 points, second only to Baker, who netted a game-high 18 to go along with 10 rebounds. The late heroics offset horrific second-quarter shooting by the Sonics. Seattle maintained its first-quarter lead despite 18.8 percent accuracy (3 of 16) from the field.

"They earned the win in a lot of difficult situations," Karl said. "I thought both teams played awful hard, but I don't know how well either team played. Hawk and Det made some big threes when we needed them. Vin made a big hoop and defensively we were solid all night."

As a result, the Sonics now top the Western Conference standings - a race that tightened considerably Tuesday with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio claiming victories.

"We'd like to have had it," said Greg Foster, who continued his recent rebounding rampage by grabbing seven against the Sonics.

Utah, however, has little time to dwell over the loss to Seattle. The Jazz play host to Portland tonight at 7 in the Delta Center. The Blazers have won the three previous meetings this season.

*****

Additional Information

West race

Team W L Pct GB

Seattle 54 18 .750 -

Utah 53 18 .746 1/2

L.A. Lakers 52 20 .722 2

San Antonio 50 23 .685 4 1/2

Phoenix 48 25 .658 6 1/2