Charles Barkley's NBA body and game is undoubtedly deteriorating, but his ability to steal the show certainly isn't.

And he did just that during and after his Houston Rockets' unexpected 103-90 victory over the Utah Jazz in their playoff opener Thursday night at the Delta Center.Barkley hadn't played in two weeks because of his nagging left groin strain, so he didn't start on Thursday. He did, however, give the Rockets some productive help off the bench at the power forward spot, logging 12 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes.

While he was listed as "probable," his status for the game had been a mystery to most prior to the tipoff. Nobody really knew how big of a factor he would be against the Jazz.

"The doctors have done a terrific job on me," he said. "I'm a little sore and I'm probably going to be a lot sore tomorrow."

As usual, Barkley had his share of run-ins with Jazz players and fans.

Shortly after he entered the game late in the first quarter, Barkley swung his elbows (a la Karl Malone) after getting a rebound so Greg Foster would stop pestering him.

"He reached at the ball and I threw an elbow at his head like I should," Barkley said with no remorse. "I expect him not to come near me."

After returning to the bench, Barkley invited a boisterous Jazz fan to meet him at the flag pole any time he wanted, in not-so-nice terms, of course. Barkley jawed with other hecklers on both sides of the court throughout the game as well.

He also egged on the entire crowd by pumping his hands in the air to "raise the roof" after the Jazz had cut the Rockets' lead to eight in the fourth quarter.

Sir Charles even barked at Gifford Neilsen, the former BYU quarterback who is now a Houston sportscaster. While the media waited to talk with the Rockets after the game, Barkley exited the locker room and started to walk through the reporters. Neilsen, who had publicly predicted a Jazz sweep on his TV show Wednesday night, congratulated Barkley for his "nice game."

Most people would have had to swallow a bar of soap if they said the phrase Barkley snapped at Neilsen.

Barkley then returned to the court for some postgame conditioning workouts. As the few fans who remained in the somber Delta Center heckled and booed him, Barkley shot free throws and sprinted the length of the court for about 10 minutes.

FREE THROW HEAVEN: Once again, Delta Center employees distributed those long, wormy, white balloons to fans behind the Rockets' basket before each half Thursday. The fans, of course, are supposed to wave the balloons to distract opposing players while they try to connect from the free-throw line.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it isn't working.

Despite the fans' efforts, the Delta Center is to free-throw shooting what Coors Field is to heavy hitting.

Sports Illustrated recently reported that visiting teams shoot a higher percentage at the Delta Center foul lines (just under 80 percent) than any other NBA building.

Before losing their mark in the fourth quarter, the Rockets made it look like they were shooting the ball through oversized hula-hoops. They drained 17 of 19 free throws while building their 21-point lead through three quarters. That included a 14-for-15 effort from the line in the third.

ANOTHER BANNER YEAR: While the traditional fireworks filled the Delta Center with smoke, ashes and deafening noise levels in the pregame show, the banner for the Jazz's 1997-98 Midwest Division championship was unveiled in the rafters.

The Delta Center ceiling is now adorned with six championship banners. The Jazz won the Midwest Division in 1983-84, '88-89, '91-92 and '96-97. Utah also earned a banner for winning the Western Conference championship last year.

GAME, SET AND MATCH?: If history repeats itself, as it always has in this particular case, the series has been decided. Houston has never lost a playoff series when it won the first game. The Rockets have a 17-0 series record with a Game 1 victory but they're only 5-17 when they lose the opener.

For the record, Utah beat Houston in three of their four previous series openers. The Jazz went on to win two of those series, including the Western Conference Finals last year. In the 1995 first round, Utah won the opener at home but then lost the second game and went on to lose the series 3-2.

In NBA history, only 21 times (out of 128) has a team that lost the opener gone on to win a best-of-five series.

MINI MEDIA CIRCUS: You wouldn't have known Thursday's game was only part of a first-round series judging all the media pass requests the Jazz received.

Including the TBS playoff crew, Utah had about 40 out-of-town media members at the Delta Center for Game 1. That many usually don't show up until at least the second round of the playoffs, according to Mark Kelly, the Jazz's media relations manager.

Add one future media member of the media, too. "I have a job at NBC when I retire," said Barkley.

SIGN LANGUAGE: Here's a sampling of the homemade signs fans brought to the Delta Center for Game 1.

- "Hakeem had a dream . . . Stockton to Malone"

- "Utah disposes of old Rockets"

- "Jazz fever!!! The only ailment the Rockets don't have"

- "Stockton to Malone: No Postage Necessary"

- "Who Needs Seikaly? Thanks Foster and Morris. We love our Jazz"

And the most common sign? Of course . . .

- "Houston, you have a problem"

Quotable:

"We have our backs to the wall. Obviously they have the homecourt advantage now. That's what we played our whole season for and now they have it." - Utah guard John Stockton