Avery Johnson used two words to describe the San Antonio Spurs' 82-73 loss to the Utah Jazz in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series Sunday: Karl Malone.

"He stepped up. He had something on his mind tonight," Johnson said. "He really wanted to try to win this game for his ball club. And we didn't do a good job as a team to keep him under control."The Mailman delivered 34 points on 17 of 28 shooting from the field as Utah took a commanding 3-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series.

"We had a chance to really do something special by going back (to Utah) 2-2," Johnson added. "Now we've dug ourselves a big hole and we must rebound."

San Antonio's problems in Game 4 began early. Johnson thought the turning point came as soon as the Spurs took the floor.

"For some reason, we didn't come ready to play. They got up early on us and we didn't contest many shots," Johnson said. "There was just so much more urgency to their game than ours. And that's why they pretty much kept us on our heels the whole game."

Utah never trailed in the contest after turning the tables on San Antonio from Game 3. The Jazz, who shot a miserable 28.6 percent Saturday, opened Game 4 by making six of their first seven attempts. The Spurs, meanwhile, missed their first seven shots as Utah opened the game with a 12-2 run.

David Robinson, the star of Game 3 with 21 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots, got off to a particularly slow start Sunday. He managed just one field-goal attempt in the first quarter en route to misfiring on his first five shots.

"It was a tough one," Robinson said after fouling out with 15 points. "We got off to a slow start and they were fantastic."

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said his team, which outrebounded San Antonio 38-33, simply tried to manage the clock better. That, he said, led Utah to better play on both ends of the floor.

The Spurs, however, were at a loss as to why Saturday's game plan backfired Sunday.

"In this series, it seems like whoever sets the tone early normally keeps the tone for the rest of the game and keeps the momentum," Johnson said. "It's just kind of disappointing because this was the biggest game of our careers, and to come out as flat as we did is just inexcusable."

Backcourt mate Vinny Del Negro thinks the Spurs learned a valuable lesson.

"You can't ever think that because something worked for you one day, it will work again the next day," he said.

Case in point, defending Malone. The Jazz star was held to 18 points and 6-of-21 shooting in Game 3.

"He was phenomenal," Chuck Person said. "The guy played horrible yesterday and today he played magnificent."

Del Negro agreed.

"Karl hit some shots. We didn't make good rotations. I think we were a step slow tonight," he said. "You've got to give Karl, especially Karl, credit. He knocked them down - especially in the fourth quarter when we got it to three (75-72)."

The Spurs, Del Negro added, couldn't capitalize because they never got on a roll. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich thinks he knows why.

"It was just one of those nights where we shot below 40 percent," he said.

Now trailing 3-1, the Spurs face a tall order in their bid to reach the next round. Only six teams in NBA playoff history have ever rallied from such a deficit. However, Miami did it just last year against New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"We have everything to gain and everything to lose," Perdue said. "Our backs are against the wall. And like they say, `we've got to come out like rabid dogs.' We've got to be ready to play and basically do anything to win."