It's true Charles Barkley didn't play in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Utah Jazz-Houston Rockets playoff series because he has a torn triceps muscle and a hernia. But there is no truth to the rumor that he is pregnant - even though the rabbit died.

The Jazz avoided being only the second No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 by downing the Rockets 84-70 Sunday afternoon in the Delta Center.When the underdog Rockets went ahead in the series 2-1, Barkley said it was akin to a rabbit hunting the hunters. Then the Jazz beat the Rockets in Houston on Friday to force a fifth game.

Karl Malone, a noted outdoorsman who once dropped a mountain lion with a muzzle loader, bagged the Rockets with a 31-point, 15-rebound performance on Sunday.

It certainly wasn't easy, but Utah found a way to advance to play the San Antonio Spurs in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals beginning Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. in the Delta Center.

"We did what we needed to do in this series, and that's the important thing," said Malone.

Just two days previously, the Jazz were hoping not to make history by losing to an eighth seed in four games. They made history anyway. The Jazz became the first team to beat the Rockets in a playoff series after losing the opener. Houston is now 17-1 in the postseason when winning Game 1.

It was a good day for Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag, a pair of Jazzmen who had a rough go of it at times this year.

Russell, who was taken out of the starting lineup six games into the season, was reinserted Sunday for the most important game of the season to date. He played a team-high 45 minutes, scoring 10 points with eight rebounds. And he even earned a kiss on his bald head from Malone as they headed off the court during a timeout with 1:27 remaining and the game finally in hand.

Ostertag also lost his starting job six games into the season. He got it back briefly, but then got hurt and lost it again. He was the target of much Malone criticism all season, mainly because he came back to training camp out of shape after signing a six-year, $40 million contract extension.

But Sunday, for the second game in a row, he actually earned praise from the Mailman. Ostertag did a solid defensive job on Rockets' star Hakeem Olajuwon, who managed only 15 points on 7-of-19 shooting.

"I've always had a knack for stepping up against top players," Ostertag said.

He came up especially big in the fourth quarter when the Jazz finally started to pull away. All six of Ostertag's points and five of his seven blocks came in the final period.

"Greg Ostertag was just tremendous protecting the basket," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

"That's what we need," said John Stockton, referring to Ostertag. "We need him to be very aggressive down there, block some shots, get some rebounds."

Ostertag, Utah's only 7-footer, will no doubt be counted on even more in the next series since the Spurs have three 7-footers - including all-stars David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

"Greg has put together two back-to-back decent games," said Malone. "Now we want him to continue that in the next series, because it's going to be a tough series also."

The Jazz seemed to have it all going for them entering Sunday's game - the homecourt advantage, the younger team, fewer injuries - but the Rockets still made them earn it. Utah led from wire-to-wire, but Houston stayed within striking distance until the final couple of minutes.

A Malone jumper with 7:30 remaining in the third quarter put the Jazz up by a dozen, 49-37.

The Delta Center crowd was at its ear-piercing, deafness-producing best (or worst, depending one's perspective). But the Rockets scored 11 straight points to pull to within one, 49-48, with four minutes remaining in the third. Malone scored six straight and Jeff Hornacek added a bucket to give the Jazz a 61-54 lead entering the fourth.

The Rockets cut the gap to three on an Eddie Johnson jumper with 8:17 to play, but Ostertag scored on a rebound dunk and Russell nailed a 3-pointer to give the Jazz some breathing room.

Malone had his best game of the series, statistically speaking, with his 31 points, 15 boards and five assists all being playoff highs this year.

"Karl played the way we expected him to play," said Hornacek, who added 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting. "In the first few games (of the playoffs) he was maybe rushing things a little and trying to do too much. He just took his time and read what the defense was doing."

The Jazz jumped out to an early 15-4 lead, but the Rockets weathered the storm and trailed by only seven entering the second quarter. Houston cut the gap to six at the half, 39-33. Had the Rockets made a few more free throws, it would have been even closer. Houston was just 5-for-12 from the foul line in the opening two quarters and 9-of-19 for the game.

Kevin Willis led the Rockets with 16 points while Othella Harrington, who got more playing time in place of Barkley, gave them a spark with 10 points in 15 minutes.

The Rockets could only wonder what might have happened if Barkley had been able to play.

"It was frustrating more than anything," said Barkley. "I'm probably a little more frustrated because it's the last game and I know we would have won (if I could have played)."

Now it's the Jazz vs. the Spurs in another Midwest Division grudge match - and Malone is already sick of being asked about the elbow-to-the-head incident last month in which Robinson was knocked unconscious.

"I'm going to play my game. I'm not going to stop playing physical," Malone promised. "I'm not going to listen to all the B.S. that is being said. I'm going to play basketball because that's my job and I'm not going to talk about it anymore."

Suffice it to say, however, that with most of the Spurs - and the entire population of the greater San Antonio area - thinking Malone took a cheap shot to the Admiral's head, it should make for a heated, bruising series.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The series

First Round

Game 1 Rockets 103

Jazz 90

Drexler leads Rockets with 22 points

Game 2 Jazz 105

Rockets 90

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 29 points

Game 3 Rockets 89

Jazz 85

Olajuwon leads Rockets with 28 points

Game 4 Jazz 93

Rockets 71

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 29 points

Game 5 Jazz 84

Rockets 70

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 31 points

*****

The series

Second Round

Game 1 San Antonio

Tuesday at UTAH

May 5 TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ, 8:30 p.m.

Game 2 San Antonio

Thurs. at UTAH

May 7 TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ, 8:30 p.m.

Game 3 UTAH at

May 9 San Antonio

TV TIME: NBC, 2:30 p.m.

Game 4 UTAH at

May 10 San Antonio

TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ, 8:00 p.m.

If necessary

Game 5 San Antonio

May 12 at UTAH

TV TIME: To be announced

If necessary

Game 6 UTAH at May 14 San Antonio

TV TIME: To be announced

If necessary

Game 7 San Antonio

May 16 at UTAH

TV TIME: To be announced