Karl Malone received the pass about 10-feet from the basket. There wasn't a Minnesota Timberwolf in the ZIP code. It was, no doubt, going to be an uncontested Mailman hammer dunk.

Or at least it could have been.This time Malone stopped in his tracks. He spotted Chris Morris well behind him, but hustling down the floor. So the Jazz superstar shoveled a pass to his teammate. It ended up being Morris who slammed the ball through during Utah's victory in the Delta Center on Tuesday night.

"Chris busted his butt to get down the court," said Malone. "When I saw that, I never thought about shooting. I just stopped and gave it to him."

Malone, who finished with 44 points anyway, wanted to reward his friend for working hard on the court. That's exactly why, on a larger scale, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is playing the once forgotten Morris on a regular basis these days - he's working hard, plus he's cut down on his mistakes.

Tonight the Jazz will take on the struggling Sacramento Kings in the regular-season home finale. And it's another must-win situation since the Jazz control their own destiny and can wrap up the home-court advantage through the playoffs by winning their remaining three games. Chances are Morris will play a significant role - which wasn't normally the case for most of this season.

In fact, during the first 50 Jazz games this year, Morris didn't play at all in 24 of them. He wasn't hurt, either. He just wasn't in Sloan's rotation. He was a highly-paid 12th man, making $3 million - the fourth-highest salary on the team behind Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek - for doing next to nothing. When he did play, it was usually garbage time with the Jazz up or down by double digits in the final minutes.

But then the Jazz traded him to Orlando - and that seems to have been the turning point.

That the trade, which sent Morris and center Greg Foster to the Magic for Rony Seikaly, didn't go through has been well doc-u-ment-ed. Morris was returned to sender.

You could say he came back from Florida with a renewed lease on life, ready to give his all to the Jazz - only if you said that, you'd be dead wrong.

The truth of the matter is that he sulked. He was mad. He knew he would have gotten considerable playing time in Orlando. Since this is the final year of his contract, he could have shown potential bidders for his services that he can still play the game. Instead, he thought, he was back with the Jazz and would be back on the end of the bench. His agent even asked the Jazz to release him. The Jazz said they would, too, if Morris would agree to forfeit the rest of his pay for this season. Apparently he didn't want to be released that much.

So for the first two games back in a Jazz uniform, Morris acted completely disinterested - and he remained in warm-ups.

But on the third game back, Sloan put him in. Morris responded with a season-high 20 points in 25 minutes against the Phoenix Suns. With the exception of a one-game team suspension for missing curfew on the road, Morris has played in every game since and been a solid contributor. He's averaging better than six points per game since the trade. He pulled down a season-best 11 rebounds Tuesday against the Timberwolves to go along with 17 points.

And his attitude has gotten better.

"It was frustrating," Morris said about the aborted trade, "but I had to turn it around to where I could benefit myself and my family . . . . It's strange how it plays out. I've started to be more focused and have a little bit more fun."

Malone gives much of the credit for Morris becoming a contributor to the coach.

"When Chris came back (from Orlando), he'd be the first to admit to you that his attitude wasn't good, like Greg Foster's was," said Malone. "Coach Sloan could have just said, "the hell with him. I'm going to bury this guy." But Sloan started to play Morris, "and Chris started to get his confidence back," said Malone.

"Chris Morris has always been a great athlete. It's just been whether he's wanted to do it or not.

Here lately he's been looking at, basically, his career. He could either salvage it or go on out of the league. At the most unlikely time he got another chance, and he's making the most of it. You've got to respect a guy for that."

Two months ago it would have been ludicrous to think the Jazz might want to re-sign Morris as a free agent this summer. Malone, for one, thinks with Morris' improved play of late, maybe the Jazz will have to consider bringing him back after all. While it's still unlikely that Morris will be in Utah next season, his recent play has to be improving his situation by making other teams take notice.

"Chris has played within himself lately, he hasn't tried to do too much," said Sloan. "That's something that had hurt Chris before. He had a tendency to play out of control. Against the Timberwolves he played under control all night long. When he does that, it's a real positive for our team."

With Antoine Carr back in the lineup after missing 13 games due to injury, Morris' time may begin to be reduced once again. Or not. When it comes to Morris, it's hard to predict anything.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Chris Morris

1997-98 season statistics

... Pre-trade Post-trade Totals

Games 26 25 51

Min 178 313 491

FGM 24 53 77

FGA 73 120 193

PCT .329 .442 .399

FTM 13 31 44

FTA 17 43 60

PCT .765 .721 .733

3M 3 15 18

3A 22 38 60

PCT .136 .395 .300

REB 44 62 106

PPG 2.5 6.1 4.2