One play, perhaps more any other, summed up the Utah Jazz's opening game playoff loss on Thursday night to the Houston Rockets in Jerry Sloan's mind. He watched with dismay at one point as Charles Barkley dribble down the floor right past three Jazz players.

It's bad enough to have the weight-challenged Barkley run past you when he's healthy. But Barkley has a painful injury. It wasn't even known until game day if he would play. But there he was, beating multiple Jazzmen down the court."That guy runs pretty good with a hernia," the Jazz coach acknowledged.

Still, he was disappointed with the effort, or lack thereof, his troops showed.

"We couldn't get up and down the floor," said Sloan, who went even further in his criticism by saying his players looked "scared."

Utah will have a chance to even the best-of-5 series tonight in the Delta Center. Tip off is set for 8:30 p.m. Even if the Jazz win, though, they'll have their work cut out for them. Games 3 and 4 will be in Houston.

The Jazz were supposed to be the superior running team entering the series what with the Rockets being older and more beat up and all. But Houston had more fast-break opportunities on Thursday and was far more effective converting on the run than Utah was during the 13-point victory. The Rockets scored 19 fast-break points to Utah's five.

"When you don't run the floor, you deserve to lose," said Sloan.

"They just beat our butts," said Greg Ostertag. "They beat us up and down the floor. They beat us on

the offensive ends. They got defensive rebounds, we were slow getting back and they were breaking."

Jazz players are well aware of the fact that they lost the homecourt advantage - the thing they worked so

diligently to get for 82 games - by laying an egg on their home floor in the series opener.

But at least a couple of the guys attempted to look at the bright side.

"Maybe that's what we were trying to do - make (the series) interesting," center Greg Foster quipped.

"Look at it this way," said Jeff Hornacek. "If we didn't have home-court (to start the series) we'd be in big trouble right now."

The Jazz need to win three out of the next four games - and at least one on the road - in order to advance to the second round. The margin of error, which was already small at the start of the short best-of-5 series, is now even smaller.

The Rockets are 17-0 in franchise history when winning the first game of a playoff series.

Utah, meanwhile, has only twice won a playoff series after losing the opener - in 1988 against the Trail Blazers and in 1994 against the Spurs. So the heat is on the Jazz.

Sloan says the Jazz won't come out and do much differently, strategy wise, then they did on Thursday. What he is looking for is better effort.

"We have to compete a lot harder to beat this team," said Sloan. "And even if we do compete harder, they have a lot of things going for them. They know they can come in here and beat us."

The Jazz will have to do a better job guarding against 3-pointers, or at least hope the Rockets aren't shooting so well from the outside. The Rockets made 10 of 22 treys. The Jazz, on the other hand, made just two shots from beyond the arc.

Utah, the best field-goal percentage team in the NBA this season, will also need to shoot better. The Jazz went one 11-minutes stretch without a field goal on Thursday. They also struggled from the foul line, making only 20 of 32 (62.5 percent).

"We just didn't play well," said Adam Keefe. "We were tentative and passive and they took it to us the whole time."

Utah's top player, power forward Karl Malone, finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, but was a subpar 10-of-23 from the field. He seems to like Utah's chances the rest of the way, though.

"We've had pressure on us all year and we've responded well," said Karl Malone. "We'll see what happens now . . .. Obviously, we've got to win the game on Saturday and then we have to go on the road and win, but we've won on the road before."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The series

First Round

Game 1 Rockets 103

Jazz 90

Drexler leads Rockets with 22 points

Game 2 Houston at UTAH

Sat. TV: KJZZ, TNT, 8:30 p.m.

Game 3 UTAH at Houston

Wed. TV: KJZZ, TNT, 7:30 p.m.

If necessary

Game 4 UTAH at Houston

May 1 TV, TIME: To be determined

If necessary

Game 5 Houston at UTAH

May 3 TV, TIME: To be determined