Karl Malone has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in both of their playoff games against the Houston Rockets, but he's nowhere close to being the team's top player in points per minute during the playoffs.

No, that distinction goes to rookie point guard Jacque Vaughn, believe it or not.It's true. He's netted five points in three minutes. That means he's scoring nearly two points per minute of action - about a point per minute more than Malone.

Sure, the stat is deceiving. Vaughn, who didn't play at all in the Game 1 loss and only in garbage time as the Jazz evened the series on Saturday. And he knows it doubtful he'll play when the series resumes on Wednesday in Houston, too.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has been rotating playing 11 players in most recent games, and Vaughn is the team's 12th man.

"You can't really play three points guards," explains Sloan. "John, of course, gets most of the minutes and Howard has earned the rest. We'd like to be able to play Jacque more. He works very hard. It's just not possible right now."

Vaughn doesn't like it, but he's not going to complain.

"I won't lie about it," he said. "Not getting playing time has been mentally challenging. But it's been an opportunity for me to test my mental toughness. I think I've dealt well with it."

Being a bench warmer is a new experience for Vaughn, who was an All-American at Kansas and a four-year starter. He even was thrown into the fire early in his NBA career, playing considerable time - and doing a solid job - as Howard Eisley's back-up during the first 18 games of the year for the Jazz when John Stockton was recovering from knee surgery.

But shortly after Utah's future Hall of Fame point guard returned, Vaughn's playing time became all but nonexistent.

Instead of pouting, however, he's worked even harder. Vaughn routinely stays long after all his teammates have hit the showers following practice to work on his game.

"I'm the type of person who wants to be able to look myself in the mirror every morning," he said. "That means doing extra abdominal workouts or extra shooting after practice or coming in on off-days and running and doing extra weight lifting so that I'm prepared to play if they need me. That's what I've done this year. I don't feel that I've short-changed myself at all. That's the good thing. If I was out of shape, if I didn't think that I had improved my game this year, if I didn't think I had learned, if I was being selfish and didn't root my teammates on then I would have a problem with myself. But I haven't done that. I've done good things that I think will help my career in the long run. I've learned good habits."

Vaughn admits it's difficult when he sees guys he toasted in college get 30 minutes of playing time in the NBA while he wastes away at the end of the bench. But he's a confident young man who feels his time will eventually come.

"It's hard sometimes, but I'm on the best team in the NBA," he said. "I'm learning something new every day, and I'm improving myself and learning how basketball is supposed to be played. . . . I know I'm a better player now at the end of the season than I was when it started."

Vaughn says he's grateful that he was forced into action early in the season. His play in the first 18 games helped the Jazz to an 11-7 start even without Stockton.

"If I hadn't played in those early season games, I'm not sure about how I'd be dealing with the situation that I'm in right now," he said. "Honestly, I think that maybe my confidence would have been a little shattered. I might have wondered if I was destined to be a 12th man my whole life. But since I played well in those first 20-something games, I showed myself, other teams and the guys on this team what I'm capable of doing. . . . (I know) I can be a starting point guard in this league and lead a franchise to some good heights."

He's not the only one who thinks so, either.

"Mark my words, Jacque Vaughn will be a fine point guard in this league," says Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa.

The team, meanwhile, had a spirited practice on Tuesday morning at Westminster College with another practice this morning. They were to fly to Houston this afternoon. Wednesday's game is set to begin at 7:30 p.m. (MDT).

*****

Additional Information

The Series

First Round

Game 1 Rockets 103

Jazz 90

Drexler leads Rockes with 22 points

Game 2 Jazz 105

Rockets 90

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 29 points

Game 3 Utah at Houston

Wednesday 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