Remember back when local sports fans didn't get all that excited about the start of the NBA playoffs?

Sure, they knew the Utah Jazz had a decent team. But they'd wait until after the first or second round before investing too much emotion. It was almost like they didn't expect much.You should remember. It was just last year.

What a difference a trip to the NBA Finals makes.

A year ago, Utahns were enthused about the Jazz's franchise-best regular-season record of 64-18, but some seemed hesitant - reluctant to believe - as Utah opened the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers. They'd been let down before.

But there are no reservations in 1998 - except, perhaps, reservations for hotel rooms in Chicago, where many Jazz fans not only hope but fully expect their team will be playing His Airness (Michael Jordan) and the Worm (Dennis Rodman) for all the glory in June. If, that is, the Bulls make it that far.

"We're not battling for credibility anymore," admits David Allred, Jazz vice president for public relations. "Even last year at this point, people were still saying the Jazz are a pretty good team; they may have won the division, but there are all these other teams out there.

"That's the pressure that's put on our franchise now. We're legitimate. Expectations are so much higher now that we've been there and had that experience."

Utah's trip to the '97 Finals and the team's continued success this season have altered the local fan-scape. Casual supporters have become huge Jazz backers. Doubters have gained confidence. Tickets, regular-season and playoff alike, have been scarce. Sports bars are crowded and tough to squeeze into on a game day.

"The bandwagon is full," said David Locke, director of operations for sports radio station KFNZ, 1320-AM, and one of many observers who's noticed things are just a little different in Jazzland these days.

Last Friday, for example, the stations' phone lines remained jammed at 1 a.m. with callers wanting to talk about the victory over Phoenix, which guaranteed Utah homecourt advantage through-out the playoffs. Locke finally told the post-game audience he was tired and had to go home. That sort of thing just didn't happen last year, certainly not during the regular season.

"Last year, there was a nervous energy about everything," Locke said. "I didn't feel there was a real excitement . . . until Stockton hit that shot against Houston (to win the Western Conference title). Then the city burst, and then you had a frenzy. This year, the frenzy has already started."

All of last year's home playoff games were sellouts, but the 2,000 tickets available to the general public for first-round games against the Clippers moved slowly. This year, the club has sold all but 600 tickets to each of 15 possible playoff games.

The 600 tickets not purchased by season-ticket holders are to be sold using a lottery system. Tickets for this Thursday and Saturday - first-round games against the Rockets - sold out quickly last Monday.

Ticket brokers are asking $30 for a nosebleed seat and $200 or more for a premium seat for the first two playoff games. They say prices could rise as much as $100 per ticket, per round, all the way to $500 or more for the Finals. That assumes, of course, the Jazz stick around that long.

"I think people in this city, judging by the way they were celebrating on Friday, they figured they had won it all and all (the Jazz) did is get homecourt advantage," said longtime fan Craig Teel. "Personally, as long as Michael Jordan is playing, I don't expect them to win. I think the Jazz will win it all this year, but Michael is Michael."

And a ticket is a ticket.

Darrel Trost, a member of the vaunted Jazz 100 Club, has a problem. He's a single guy with two front-row seats to all the playoff games. It's a good problem to have, he admits, but it's not like Trost can line up 15 separate dates and get away with it.

"When you sit down there (on the floor), it's just like being in a fish bowl," he said. "I've got a lot of clients that think they should go. A lot of family members think they should go. Then I've got a couple of sons who will probably be the ones that go, but it's very hard. My sons have to fly down from Seattle. . . . It's very complicated."

It's pretty simple for the Jazz, however. If they win every game they play at home, they will end the season as NBA Champions. Those who know them say it's clear Jazz players won't be satisfied unless they go all the way.

Dave Ipaktchian, general manager of Iggy's Sports Grill, sees so much of Bryon Russell, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson that he has given each their own personal table at the restaurant. The trio dropped in on occasion during the playoffs last year.

But not this year. Ipaktchian said Russell told him a month ago the players wouldn't be hanging out at Iggy's for the rest of the season. Instead, they'd be getting to bed early and making a serious effort to gain homecourt advantage.

"For the first time in our history we control our own destiny," All-red said. "Now it's all up to us."