Lost in the euphoria of Utah's second straight trip to the NBA Finals is the reality that it almost didn't happen.

Fans may have forgotten about Game 4 of the Houston series. The Jazz, however, have not.Facing elimination and a 21-10 deficit after one quarter, Utah turned to its bench. Specifically, a lineup assistant coach Gordon Chiesa refers to as Bryon Russell and four of his most dangerous friends - Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, Antoine Carr and Greg Ostertag.

"The bench came in, and the rest is almost Jazz folklore," Chiesa said.

The Jazz, of course, overcame the deficit and went on to win the first-round series in five games.

And it all began with defense.

Russell, in particular, got things started with eight deflections in the second quarter.

"If Bryon Russell doesn't jumpstart our team, maybe we don't win that game," Chiesa said. "Then it's over. It's all over."

The end has yet to come, however, and superior bench play is one reason why. In the 1998 playoffs, Utah's reserves have outscored the opposition 439-316. After surrendering 41 points in each of the first two contests with the Rockets, the Jazz have limited opposing benches to 27 points or less in the 12 games that have followed.

"What makes the bench unique is they understand their roles coming into the game," Chiesa said. "Their job is to jumpstart our defense, and if they score on offense that's even better. Most people in the NBA off the bench want to try to get themselves going off their offense, but our guys do it off their defense."

Carr confirmed that the second team's strong suit is defense. Versatility, he added, allows Utah to adapt to any situation.

"We can bang. We can go to finesse. Whatever we need to do," Carr said. "We've got guys on the bench who are able to do that."

It wasn't always that way. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan recalls the days when his front line consisted of Thurl Bailey, Karl Malone and Mark Eaton.

"We really didn't have any flexibility. Every time I wanted to try and go with a smaller guy in those positions, we weren't talented enough," he said. "You can make all those moves you want, but you better try to win with your best players. Even with your best players out there it's still difficult to win, but now we have different things we can do because we have more versatile players."

As such, the Jazz have become a much tougher team to defend. And Karl Malone no longer frets about losing leads when he's on the bench.

"Now I can go out and sometimes the lead is extended and that's a neat luxury to have. Coach Sloan keeps looking down the bench at me, and I'll be saying, `You don't want to mess up a good thing,' " Malone said. "These guys (the bench) didn't get here by accident. You don't just gear up for John and Karl and Jeff Hornacek anymore. You've got to gear up for Chris Morris and Howard and everyone. Even Jacque (Vaughn), who's not playing, if he came in you'd have to play that guy."

Malone speaks from experience. Chiesa said Utah's second unit is very competitive with the first unit in practice. When playing time and score, a scrimmage that simulates game situations, the reserves often prevail.

"Those guys have done a major job for us in terms of helping our team win," Chiesa said. "You could argue that those guys are as good as most guys who are starters on other NBA teams."

Utah's bench, despite being comprised of players other teams chose to pass or give up on, has blossomed. Russell, who has since replaced Adam Keefe in the starting lineup, and Anderson were second-round draft picks; while Eisley was cut from NBA teams three times before finding a home. Carr and Morris, meanwhile, came to the Jazz via free agency. And the Kansas connection of Ostertag and Vaughn was drafted late in the first round.

Though none has totally mastered his skills, Chiesa said each is pointed in the right direction since joining the Jazz.

"I don't have any problem with putting guys in the game," said Sloan. "I don't have a problem taking them out, either. I have to have that flexibility."

And he's had it for the past two seasons.

"I don't think we would have succeeded last year as much as we did if it hadn't been for our bench. We're in the same boat this year," Sloan said. "We've said all along that our bench is crucial to us. I think people now are just beginning to realize what I was talking about."

After the Jazz reserves outscored the Lakers reserves 145-96 in Utah's 4-0 series sweep, a Los Angeles sports writer suggested the Delta Center mural featuring John Stockton and Karl Malone be altered for the NBA Finals.

His suggestion? Feature Eisley making three-pointers, Anderson leading a fast break, Morris pulling down a rebound, and a shot of Ostertag and Carr smothering Shaquille O'Neal.

Despite an increase in media attention, Carr insists Utah's second unit isn't getting caught up in all the hoopla. He dismissed the notion that the Jazz bench is the most talented in the NBA.

"We're just a hard-working team," Carr said. "We're not going to believe anything else. We're just going to go and play good ol' Jazz basketball."

And so far, that's been more than good enough.

"Our bench guys are really valued here. It's emphasized by Jerry and all the coaches that we really value their contribution to the team," Chiesa said. "When our bench plays well, most times we win. It's no accident. It's by design."

*****

Additional Information

Prime-time pine

A look at how key reserves helped the Jazz bench outscore the Lakers 145-96 in Utah's 4-0 sweep of Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals:

Points Rebounds Assists

CHRIS MORRIS

Regular season 4.3 2.1 0.4

Conference finals 8.8 4.8 1.5

SHANDON ANDERSON

Regular season 8.3 2.8 1.1

Conference finals 8.3 4.3 1.5

HOWARD EISLEY

Regular season 7.7 2.0 4.2

Conference finals 7.8 2.5 6.0

GREG OSTERTAG

Regular season 4.7 5.9 0.4

Conference finals 4.8 3.8 1.0

ANTOINE CARR

Regular season 5.7 2.0 0.7

Conference finals 4.5 2.5 0.5

Bench battles

How the Utah Jazz reserves have fared against the competition in the 1998 NBA Playoffs:

Game 1: Rockets 41, Jazz 30

Game 2: Rockets 41, Jazz 35

Game 3: Jazz 39, Rockets 17

Game 4: Jazz 44, Rockets 17

Game 5: Rockets 20, Jazz 18

Game 6: Jazz 26, Spurs 3

Game 7: Jazz 42, Spurs 20

Game 8: Jazz 36, Spurs 23

Game 9: Spurs 15, Jazz 11

Game 10: Spurs 23, Jazz 13

Game 11: Jazz 53, Lakers 27

Game 12: Lakers 25, Jazz 17

Game 13: Jazz 46, Lakers 22

Game 14: Jazz 29, Lakers 22

Total bench points: Jazz 439, Opposition 316