John Travolta's career, believe it or not, can somewhat explain the differences between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers entering the best-of-7 NBA Western Conference Finals, which begin today at 1:30 in the Delta Center.

Jazz stars like John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek remember Travolta as Vinny Barberino from "Welcome Back, Kotter." They recall the disco craze inspired by Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever."Ask the Lakers about Barberino and the other Sweathogs and you'll get blank stares. To most of them, Travolta's career started with those talking baby flicks.

The Jazz grew up with "The Brady Bunch" and "Wide World of Sports." For the Lakers it was "The Cosby Show" and ESPN. The Jazz are one of the last teams in the NBA loaded with baby boomers. The Lakers don't have a single player in his 30s.

It's a generational thing, really. As a result, the conference finalists see things a bit differently.

For instance, Karl Malone thinks a screen is what you set to get a teammate open. When Kobe Bryant hears the word "screen" he thinks of the part of a window that lets outside air in but keeps bugs out. Bryant, as Malone found out all too well at the All-Star Game, prefers to go one-on-one rather than having a teammate set a pick for him.

There was little love lost between the teams after last year's playoffs, but that dislike - or generation gap, if you will - has only escalated this year. There have been wars of words, a knock-down slap at a shootaround, a disagreement on playing styles at the All-Star game and a throat-slashing gesture to name just a few of the problems between the teams.

Most agree that the series could get ugly.

"It's going to be a battle of epic proportions," predicts Antoine Carr, one of Utah's many thirty-something players.

Still, Malone hesitates to compare the Jazz-Lakers battles of 1998 to the good ol' days - back when teams walked uphill, both ways, to out-of-town games. Back before cushy chartered flights. Back when rats the size of small dogs roamed the Boston Garden. Back when shorts were, well, short.

"I don't know if it's a rivalry," said Malone. "If Magic (Johnson), Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and (Michael) Cooper were still there it would be a bigger rivalry to me because those guys were playing when I first came in. I don't really think it's a rivalry. It's merely two teams that have to play each other."

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan agrees.

"I don't think you really could (call it a rivalry), as young as they are and as old as we are," said Sloan. "As old as we are, it's not a rivalry - it's survival."

The Jazz may be old, but they still are a team that won an NBA-best 62 regular season games and are the defending conference cham-pions. Utah, after a shaky start to the playoffs, has won six of seven.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are simply the hottest team in the league. They won 61 games during the regular season and finished off title-contending Seattle in impressive style by winning four consecutive games by double digit margins.

"It's going to be a tough series," said Malone. "They are probably playing the best basketball of the four teams left, and we've got those guys first."

Said Greg Foster, who will draw the starting assignment against Laker star center Shaquille O'Neal. "The Lakers are young and talented. We're old and talented. We'll see what happens."

When it comes to the talent department, Sloan doesn't like his team's chances. For the Jazz to win, the coach admits, they will have to execute better, work more as a team and make smarter decisions.

"It will take a lot of intelligence," said Sloan. "That's what it all boils down to. We can't compete against them if we try to go one-on-one."

The Jazz certainly have the experience factor in their favor, having been to the conference finals three consecutive years and five times since the Lakers' last visit in 1991.

But Malone is the first to admit that may not be as big of a factor as Jazz fans hope it is.

"Experience is overrated," said the Mailman.

The home-court advantage, mean-while, is a big deal to the Jazz. "That's what we played the whole season for," said Malone. "I don't care what anybody says, the home court is important."

The Lakers, however, were the best team in the league away from home during the regular season. And they won two of three games on the Sonics' Key Arena hardwood in the conference semis.

But the Jazz are a good road team, too. Utah was second to the Lakers in road success during the regular season, and the Jazz won games in both Houston and San Antonio during the playoffs. Both teams could win on the opponent's floor, but the Jazz have to like their chances if it comes down to a seventh game being played in the Delta Center.

Utah, of course, will concentrate on slowing down O'Neal, but they also need to worry about the outside shooting of the Lakers.

"Every guy out there can shoot threes," said Jeff Hornacek. "It's not just Eddie Jones and (Nick) Van Exel. (Rick) Fox made them the other day, and Robert Horry has made them, and he made a bunch of them against us when he was with the Rockets. There are all kinds of problems they present us."

Then again, the Jazz present some problems for the Lakers, too.

Utah executes in a half-court set better than any team in the league. Malone should have a big advantage at the power forward spot. Stockton is still as good of a floor leader as there is in basketball. Bryon Russell is on a roll both offensively and defensively. Greg Ostertag can make up for a poor season in just one series.

It should be fascinating, this generational war on the basketball floor.

Let the battles begin.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The series

The West

Conference finals

Game 1 Los Angeles

Sat. at UTAH

May 16 TV TIME: NBC, 1:30 p.m.

Game 2 Los Angeles

Monday at UTAH

May 18 TV TIME: TNT, KJZZ, 6:30 p.m.

Game 3 UTAH at

May 22 Los Angeles

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

Game 4 UTAH at

May 24 Los Angeles

TV TIME: NBC, 1:30 p.m.

If necessary

Game 5 Los Angeles

May 26 at UTAH

TV TIME: NBC, 7:00 p.m.

If necessary

Game 6 UTAH at

May 29 Los Angeles

TV TIME: To be announced

If necessary

Game 7 Los Angeles

May 31 at UTAH

TV TIME: To be announced