Utah avoided the broom on Wednesday night, but the Jazz have yet to prove they can beat the Portland Trail Blazers in a fair fight.

The Jazz, lopsided losers of all three previous games to the Trail Blazers this season, rallied from a halftime deficit to win, 98-89, in the Delta Center. In the process, Utah avoided a first-ever series sweep by Portland.But Isaiah "J.R." Rider was suspended for the game. And Portland center Arvydas Sabonis played only 13 minutes against the Jazz - none in the second half - because of a hip injury. Rider is Portland's leading scorer. Sabonis is the team's second leading scorer and the team's top rebounder.

Still, the Blazers were in the game until the waning moments. It was tied, in fact, with under seven minutes to play.

"They were without their two best players, so this isn't a tremendous win for us," Jazz forward Adam Keefe said, "but it's a very, very important win."

Indeed, it was an important win because it moved the Jazz into a tie with the Seattle SuperSonics for the best record in the Western Conference at 54-18. Both teams have 10 games remaining. The Jazz actually need to win one more game than the Sonics the rest of the way to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, however, because the Sonics hold the tie-breaker edge should the teams finish with the same record. The Blazers fell to 40-32 with the loss.

"I was pleased with our effort," said Portland coach Mike Dunleavy. "I thought being short-handed the way we were that our guys battled and did a good job on the boards."

Not only did the Blazers miss Rider and Sabonis for their offensive prowess, but they missed their defense and rebounding, too.

Jeff Hornacek had a season-best scoring night, netting 31 points. But he would have been guarded by Rider had the Blazers' leading scorer not been suspended for the game by Dunleavy for being late for practice, and points, then, might have been tougher to come by.

"There were a couple of shots I wouldn't normally take in our offense, but, since I was making shots, I took them," said Hornacek, who made 11 of his 16 attempts. "After awhile, the guys were looking for me when I was coming off a pick."

Jerry Sloan, who was named the NBA Coach of the Month on Wednesday for leading the Jazz to a 15-2 mark in March, felt good about Hornacek taking a more prominent role in the offense, too.

"You've got to guard Jeff for every second he's on the floor," said Sloan. "If you leave him open for just a couple of seconds, he's going to make shots. He's one of those rare guys in this game that every time he shoots, you think it's going in. It used to be that way when we played against him. It's a very uncomfortable feeling (to play against him). It's a lot more comfortable (to have him on your side)."

Greg Ostertag had a strong second half and produced his top overall outing since coming off the injured list two weeks ago. He finished with eight points, nine rebounds and six blocks. But all of Ostertag's rebounds and six of his points came in the second half when the 7-3 Sabonis was out.

Even so, Wednesday night was a major improvement for Ostertag, who had contributed little since his return.

"We need him," said Sloan of his 7-2 center.

Karl Malone added 29 points and a team-high eight boards, while John Stockton scored 14 points with nine assists.

"When Karl, John and Jeff play as well as they did tonight, we're not going to lose a whole lot of games," said Keefe.

But all was not rosy for the Jazz. Utah's top two bench scorers for the season, Bryon Russell and Shandon Anderson, went scoreless on 0-for-11 shooting.

The Blazers got out to a strong start, leading by as many as seven points in the second quarter before settling for a four-point halftime advantage. Hornacek went off for 13 third-quarter points, however, as the Jazz erased the deficit quickly. The game remained close until the final three minutes when Utah pulled away.

Damon Stoudamire, in his first game as a Blazer against the Jazz, scored 22 points with six assists, while Rasheed Wallace added 18 points. Brian Grant scored eight - all in the second quarter - and finished with a game-high 14 rebounds.

The Jazz will next play the lowly Denver Nuggets on Friday night in the Delta Center. The Nuggets still need one more win this season to avoid tying for the worst all-time record in NBA history.

*****

Additional Information

West race

Team W L Pct GB

Seattle 54 18 .750 -

Utah 54 18 .750 -

L.A. Lakers 52 20 .722 2

San Antonio 50 23 .685 4 1/2

Phoenix 48 25 .658 6 1/2