The Big Dawg had his act going strong. Dark shades. Tight shirt. Scowl. And so when the Jazz forward was asked about the physical nature of this first-round playoff series, he responded in typical Big Dawg fashion.

He woofed."I like playing physical," he said. "I don't like playing pansy basketball."

These days, of course, it isn't just big men like Antoine Carr who are getting into the tough-guy act. In the NBA, nobody wants to be considered a, well, pansy. Call them an obscenity, fine. Disparage their taste in clothing, cars, food or even spouses, and they won't even change expressions. But call them a wimp and get ready for war.

If there is one thing that has distinguished this Jazz-Rockets series so far, it's the gratuitous violence. If you want to be wimpy, join the chess club. This is the Jerry Springer Show, minus the flying chairs. It's the WWF without capes and masks. In the past week in the Jazz series, players have been undercut, whacked, tripped and shoved. There probably would have been a slap, except that was taken care of on the first day of the season when Shaquille O'Neal slapped Greg Ostertag to the ground.

The matter of physical play came to a head on Saturday when Houston's Charles Barkley delivered a forearm shiver to John Stockton's face, after the outcome had long been decided. Barkley drew a flagrant foul. The play raised Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's ire, who said the act "makes me sick to my stomach."

"That was a good one, wasn't it?" crowed Barkley after the game.

Getting physical has become the only way to go. The NBA looks a little like basketball and a lot like demolition derby. You can watch Shaq in any game, moving people around like salt shakers on a table, then backing in to dunk. You can tune in to see Charles Oakley or Dennis Rodman grabbing, grappling, twisting and shoving. And who could forget the uproar over the Karl Malone elbow that sent David Robinson to the hospital?

It could be an NBA game, or it might be an Oliver Stone movie.

Saturday's most memorable moment wasn't a sweeping dunk or an arching three; it was when Stockton set a screen in the middle and got mugged for his trouble. First, he got tripped, then shoved as he set the screen, then jarred by Barkley's forearm. Earlier in the game, Jeff Hornacek and Clyde Drexler got into a brief shoving match after a particularly rough play. There was also the play in which Bryon Russell was tripped in the open court.

Whether the game is actually more violent than it was when Sloan played is debatable. Sloan, who was less than a choir boy himself, insists the roughness was always there. The difference is that back then, if someone made a dirty play, you responded in kind. End of story.

Clearly, violence has taken on a life of its own. Where you draw the line between physical play and dirty play depends on the observer. But violence isn't just part of the game, it's part of the show. In order to be Dennis Rodman, you have to let everyone know you're busy being Dennis Rodman. You don't just knee a player as he's driving around you - as Rodman did during the 1994 playoffs to John Stockton. You kick a photographer in the groin to make your point. You don't just deliver a jarring screen to Stockton, you smash him in the face.

"It's not so much that it's happening more. It's always happened," said Sloan. "It's the sideshows that go on about it. You end up having to still talk about it. That's the stuff that's destroying the game of basketball, in my opinion. Those things happened when I played, but we didn't have to talk about it."

Sloan allows that in his day there were also hard fouls and flying elbows. His nose isn't bent that way from driving his tractor. But back then there weren't unending replays and discussions. "There's a lot more coverage. They're able to play it back three or four times and get people all upset, then they can talk about it for 10 days on talk radio," said Sloan, only half-joking. "By then this may be the biggest thing that ever happened to basketball."

Whether the game is actually getting more violent lately is hard to prove. Though the number of flagrant fouls has risen the last two seasons, in 1994-95 there were 150 flagrant fouls called - 10 more than this year. Still, the matter has been going on for almost a decade, since the Bad Boys of Detroit made a point of throwing people on the floor for no apparent reason.

At any rate, the series continues Wednesday night, and who knows what's next. Iron pipes? Switchblades? Nunchuks? Exactly what is too violent?

Simple. "If the officials call it, you can't do it," Sloan said. "If they aren't calling it, you can do it."