CALL IT A letter to the Mailman, dropping a little line just to let him know the Lakers are thinking of him.

Or call it the preemptive strike in the what could develop into a war of pushes, shoves and words between the Lakers and the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.Some teams develop "friendly rivalries" marked by "spirited competition." The Lakers and Jazz simply don't like one another, and do little to hide that fact.

From Shaquille O'Neal's head-slap of Jazz center Greg Ostertag hours before the regular-season opener to Utah reserve Greg Foster dragging his finger across his throat in a derogatory gesture directed at the Laker bench in March, there have been plenty of tense moments between the Lakers and Jazz this season. Some of those emotions will undoubtedly spill over into their Western Conference championship series, which begins Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

Laker coach Del Harris did nothing to promote a truce Wednesday. Some 16 hours after his team eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics from the playoffs with a stunningly sharp 110-95 Game 5 victory Tuesday night in Seattle, Harris used an off-day news conference to blast Jazz forward Karl Malone's newly developed technique of kicking away defenders.

Jim McCurdie

Long Beach Press- Telegram

THEIR CLAW IS as big as an MTA bus.

Their tail is as long as the Santa Monica pier.

The Western Conference finals open Saturday in Salt Lake City, and the Utah Jazz will be welcoming to town . . . Godzilla. Or at least the NBA version, decked in purple and gold and led by a true-to-life 7-foot-1 giant.

Having blown the Seattle SuperSonics out of the semifinals by dominating the last four meetings in the five-game series, the Los Angeles Lakers' image is growing to monster-like proportions. Consider Sonics coach George Karl's postgame postmortem:

"Mentally," he said, "I think we've awakened a great basketball team."

Awakened a giant. Awakened Godzilla.

Seattle, a 61-win team with two All-Stars and a prolific offense, was a favorite to advance to the NBA Finals. Instead, the Sonics won only one game before the Lakers thrashed them as thoroughly as an oversized lizard thrashes a city bus. . . .

The Lakers' game now has teeth to it. And claws.

So, entering the conference finals against the Jazz, there is little comparison to a year ago. . . . The Lakers are healthier, more mature, deeper and more focused. They are rebounding better, playing defense more tenaciously and involving all of their components seamlessly.

And Shaquille O'Neal has become perhaps the most dominant force in the league. The Sonics will tell you so.

Howard Beck

Los Angeles Daily News

STREAMS OF UNCONSCIOUSNESS while bracing myself for Karl Malone's incessant and annoying whining:

- It's been a while since Los Angeles was this hyped over a professional sports team, at least one that wasn't leaving town.

It has been five years since the Kings played in the Stanley Cup finals, 10 years since the Dodgers played for a National League pennant or World Series, and seven years since the Lakers even got as far as they have now, the NBA Western Conference finals.

Maybe this is a sign that the city is pulling out of its sports recession. One can hope.

For the last decade, Angeleno pro sports fans have been dealing with the NFL vacuum, a Kings' franchise in turmoil, the prickly Disney teams, and a Dodger team that has become the poster child for underachievement.

One can't expect the fans here to completely get behind the Lakers, even as awesome as they've been the last four games. There were callers to sports talk shows Wednesday, as well as sports talk hosts, who were claiming the Lakers still haven't beaten anyone and calling for Del Harris' white-haired scalp.

Whatever. To each his own. All I know is that the Lakers have the community truly excited for the first time since Kirk Gibson was limping around the bases. That counts for something. ...

- Certainly, the challenge of playing the Utah Jazz should ignite the Forum crowd, which caught fire last Sunday. There may be no opposing player in pro sports disliked as much here, and for so many reasons, as Karl Malone.

Malone has always been antagonistic toward the Lakers. It was Dr. Malone who helped tilt the court of public opinion about Magic Johnson playing basketball with HIV.

It is Malone who leads the league in whining to officials about physical play, and Malone (and John Stockton) who deliver a fair share of cheap shots, and Malone who has dissed both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in separate incidents at all-star functions.

It will be Malone, too, who will benefit most if the Lakers lose their cool when Greg Ostertag and Greg Foster, Utah's tag-team of low-post thugs, apply the body to Shaq and anyone else venturing down the lane.

What the Lakers need most is keep their composure. Utah is beatable, as long as the Lakers play with the same cold, assassin-like composure as they did Seattle. They can't afford to give in to modest talents like Foster, who gave the Laker bench the throat-slit salute in March, or the 7-2 Ostertag, who somehow got into Shaq's head last season. . . .

Bob Keisser

Long Beach Press- Telegram