Distraction? What distraction?

That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment at Utah Jazz practice at Westminster College on Thursday morning prior to the team's jumping on a jet and flying to southern California for tonight's Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. The non-distracted, well-rested Jazz - proud owners of a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series - will tip things off at 8 p.m. MDT in the Great Western Forum.The Jazz appeared loose and Karl Malone was in a self-proclaimed "great mood" on Thursday. Yet stress-filled Utahns were still jamming radio call-in shows to put their two bits in concerning the chance that Malone might play for another team when his contract with the Jazz expires following the 1998-99 season.

Malone riled up fans Wednesday afternoon by saying in a national radio interview that he may sign a contract elsewhere - with Portland and Seattle being two possibilities because he likes rain - after his present deal expires. He did little to defuse matters during a local TV call-in show Wednesday night.

Despite all the gray hairs Malone's comments caused Jazz fans, they appeared to have little impact on the team. It was even a running joke at practice.

"I didn't see any" effects of Malone's comments during practice, said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

"We didn't have any fistfights or see anything like that. Everybody seemed to be on the same page like we usually are."

"We laughed about it," said Malone when asked how his coaches and teammates reacted to all the fuss his comments caused.

Malone talking about possibly leaving the Jazz is nothing new. He's made similar comments several times this season dating back to training camp. But since he said them when the Jazz are only six wins away from the NBA title, more was made out of it locally this time around.

"It's not a big deal," said Malone on Thursday. "I've said it all year. . . . Do I take what I said back? Hell, no."

For now, Malone says his focus is on the Lakers and tonight's game in particular. He and his teammates are well aware that the they have struggled in the third games of series on the road during the past two seasons. The Jazz lost to the Lakers and Rockets last year and to the Rockets and the Spurs this season in third games - by an average of 15 points per pop in those four games.

"We've never played well in Game 3s, so we've got motivation to play well," said Malone. "If we do the things we're capable of doing, the big picture will take care of itself."

The Lakers, having lost the first two games, are not in good shape. But losing Game 3 would all but end the series. Only seven teams have rebounded to win best-of-7 series when down 0-2 in league history, but no team has ever come back to win after losing the first three games.

While the Jazz certainly have the upper hand, Sloan is being ever cautious.

"They have pride and they are a great team," said Sloan of the Lakers. They know they can beat us if they come and play. When backs are to the wall, you see what a fight people can put up. That's just human nature. Their backs are to the wall, but if they get this game they are right back into it."

There have been rumors circulating that the Lakers may make some changes tonight in both their lineup and how they try to defend the Jazz. Nick Van Exel and Corie Blount may get the starting nods over Derek Fisher and Robert Horry, respectively. Another rumor is that the Lakers will put 6-6 shooting guard Eddie Jones on 6-1 John Stockton defensively, leaving Fisher or Van Exel to take Jeff Hornacek, who struggled in the first two games.

Sloan has heard the rumors, but seems unfazed. "We'll still run the same stuff (if Jones guards Stockton)," said the Jazz coach. "Eddie Jones is longer and he may keep John from shooting in the lane, but we'll just have to wait and see . . . . If we run the pick and roll and Eddie Jones is guarding John Stockton, it's still the same. As long as we screen him, then it will give John some leeway to make a decision."

While the teams had three days to rest up and prepare between the second and third games of the series, it will get back to being every other day now. Game 4 will be Sunday afternoon in the Forum with Game 5, if necessary, Tuesday night in the Delta Center.


Additional Information

The series

The West

Conference finals

Game 1 Jazz 112

Lakers 77

Karl Malone leads Jazz with 29 points

Game 2 Jazz 99

Lakers 95

John Stockton breaks out with 22 points

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