Unless Karl Malone decides to retire effective immediately to devote more attention to his auto dealerships and/or fledgling Hollywood career and John Stockton gets hit by a meteor - or some other set of unlikely occurrences - the Utah Jazz should advance to the NBA's Western Conference finals for the fifth time in seven years.

That's not to say Tuesday's 6 p.m. game against the San Antonio Spurs in the Delta Center has a foregone conclusion, however. To the contrary, the Jazz have shown a certain vulnerability at home during the playoffs, losing once to the Rockets and coming a couple of last-second shots away from a pair of losses to the Spurs.But Utah, with its 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 conference semifinal, would have to lose three straight to lose the series, including two in the Delta Center. That, as former president George Bush would say, is not gonna happen. The Jazz, since Stockton returned to the lineup after knee surgery 18 games into the season, haven't lost two games in a row this season, let alone three.

The Jazz could lose tonight and still be in good shape with two more chances to end Tim Duncan's brilliant rookie season. Still, the Jazz know how important it would be to get the series over with now. It would not only give Utah some much-needed rest before the conference finals - which will start on Saturday at the earliest - but it would give Jazz fans the chance to watch the series finale of Seinfeld with the rest of the nation on Thursday instead of being glued to the set to catch Game 6 from the Alamodome.

Malone has said he enjoys spending time in San Antonio and would like to go back to visit this summer. He just doesn't want to be there on Thursday night.

"We'd all like to wrap this thing up and end it at home," said the Mailman after his impressive 34-point performance on Sunday helped the Jazz get into a position to end the series tonight.

For Malone, who has various bumps and bruises, a few days off before the next series would be a godsend. During this series alone he's sprained a wrist, sprained an ankle and aggravated a sore hip. That doesn't include the injured middle finger on his right hand that has been heavily bandaged all season and will require surgery when the playoffs are over. Like Stockton, who says he's feeling great even after missing practices with a sore back, Malone doesn't like to discuss physical ailments.

"I just play. You can't complain about injuries," said Malone. "A lot of other guys choose to talk about them. I just say, `Look, I'm fine and I'm ready to play.' That's basically the way I approach it."

Malone feels a key to Game 5 will be getting off to a fast start like they did on Sunday in San Antonio. The Jazz were up 12-2 early and never trailed.

"We've got to come out with the same fire and intensity," said Malone. "In this business you can't allow yourselves to feel good. These guys' backs are against the wall now. They don't want to end their season on a bad note. They are going to come out and give us everything they've got."

Jerry Sloan, as coaches are wont to do, is taking a conservative stance.

"We are not in the driver's seat," Sloan said after the Jazz's Game 4 victory put them in the driver's seat. "We have to win four. Like I've said from the beginning, I have all the respect in the world for them. They are a great team. We were very fortunate to have a good game. They could come back. They are very talented."

The Spurs are attempting to stay positive, too. David Robinson even says he still likes San Antonio's chances to win the series.

"We are going to have to establish the defense because the crowd is going to be pumped up," said Robinson. "We've got to finish the game and get a win."

Either that, or dust off the golf clubs and start the summer vacation on Wednesday.

Should the Jazz advance, a difficult job is ahead. The Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal, who is averaging 30.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and is shooting .613 from the field in the Western Conference semifinals, may be Utah's next opponent. The Lakers hold a 3-1 series edge over Seattle (See story on D3).

*****

Additional Information

The Series

Second Round

Game 1 Jazz 83

Spurs 82> Karl Malone leads Jazz with 25 points

Game 2 Jazz 109

overtime

Thursday Spurs 106

Stockton has 18 points, 12 assists

Game 3 Spurs 86

Jazz 64

David Robinson leads Spurs with 21

Game 4 Jazz 82

Spurs 73

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 34 points

Game 5 San Antonio

Tuesday at UTAH

TV, Time: TNT, KJZZ - 6 p.m.

If Necessary

Game 6 UTAH at

May 14 San Antonio

TV, Time: TNT, KJZZ - time TBA

If Necessary Game 7 San Antonio

May 16 at UTAH

TV, Time: TNT, KJZZ - time TBA

NBA PLAYOFFS

FIRST ROUND

(Best-of-5)

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Utah 3, Houston 2

Houston 103, Utah 90

Utah 105, Houston 90

Houston 89, Utah 85

Utah 93, Houston 71

Utah 84, Houston 70

Seattle 3, Minnesota 2

Seattle 108, Minnesota 83

Minnesota 98, Seattle 93

Minnesota 98, Seattle 90

Seattle 92, Minnesota 88

Seattle 97, Minnesota 84

L.A. Lakers 3, Portland 1

L.A. Lakers 104, Portland 102

L.A. Lakers 108, Portland 99

Portland 99, L.A. Lakers 94

L.A. Lakers 110, Portland 99

San Antonio 3, Phoenix 1

San Antonio 102, Phoenix 96

Phoenix 108, San Antonio 101

San Antonio 100, Phoenix 88

San Antonio 99, Phoenix 80

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

(Best-of-7)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Charlotte vs. Chicago

Sunday, May 3

Chicago 83, Charlotte 70

Wednesday, May 6

Charlotte 78, Chicago 76

Friday, May 8

Chicago 103, Charlotte 89

Sunday, May 10

Chicago 94, Charlotte 80, Chicago leads series 3-1

Wednesday, May 13

Charlotte at Chicago, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Friday, May 15

Chicago at Charlotte, TBA (TBA), if necessary

Sunday, May 17

Charlotte at Chicago, TBA (NBC), if necessary

Indiana vs. New York

Tuesday, May 5

Indiana 93, New York 83

Thursday, May 7

Indiana 85, New York 77

Saturday, May 9

New York 83, Indiana 76

Sunday, May 10

Indiana 118, New York 107, OT, Indiana leads series 3-1

Wednesday, May 13

New York at Indiana, 5 p.m. (TNT)

Friday, May 15

Indiana at New York, TBA (TBA), if necessary

Sunday, May 17

New York at Indiana, TBA (NBC), if necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Seattle vs. L.A. Lakers

Monday, May 4

Seattle 106, L.A. Lakers 92

Wednesday, May 6

L.A. Lakers 92, Seattle 68

Friday, May 8

L.A. Lakers 119, Seattle 103

Sunday, May 10

L.A. Lakers 112, Seattle 100, L.A. Lakers lead series 3-1

Tuesday, May 12

L.A. Lakers at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. (TNT)

Thursday, May 14

Seattle at L.A. Lakers, 8:30 p.m. (TNT), if necessary

Saturday, May 16

L.A. Lakers at Seattle, TBA (NBC), if necessary

San Antonio vs. Utah

Tuesday, May 5

Utah 83, San Antonio 82

Thursday, May 7

Utah 109, San Antonio 106, OT

Saturday, May 9

San Antonio 86, Utah 64

Sunday, May 10

Utah 82, San Antonio 73, Utah leads series 3-1

Tuesday, May 12

San Antonio at Utah, 6 p.m. (TNT)

Thursday, May 14

Utah at San Antonio, 6 p.m. (TNT), if necessary

Saturday, May 16

San Antonio at Utah, TBA (NBC), if necessary