To hear the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls talk, both of their teams are expected to lose the NBA Finals.

"I consider us the underdogs," said Michael Jordan.The Bulls underdogs? He's kidding, right? After winning five titles in seven years - every year since 1990 that Jordan didn't fool around with baseball - how can Chicago really feel it's not a favorite to win it all again?

But there they were on Tuesday, sandbagging like crazy. Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman all called themselves underdogs - without even cracking smiles.

Karl Malone doesn't believe it, though.

"I heard some interview with (Bulls reserve) Jud Buechler where he said that they were the underdog," said Malone. "Yeah, right. I don't buy any of that."

The reality is that both Jordan and Malone are right. Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Bulls the favorites to win the series, but the Jazz slight favorites to win in tonight's Game 1 at the Delta Center.

The Bulls point to the facts that the Jazz are better rested, have home-court advantage and won both games during the regular season as proof that they are underdogs. Since the Jazz have all those things going for them, the Bulls contend, Utah is under more pressure to win.

Talk about pressure - whichever team wins tonight will likely win the title. It's that simple. The Game 1 winner goes on to win NBA best-of-seven series nearly 80 percent of the time (79.5 to be exact). Eight of the last nine teams to win Game 1 of the Finals have gone on to claim the title.

"The first game is important," said Malone. "We realize how important it is. I feel that that's the game they want. Of course, they want both of them (in the Delta Center), but I think they realize that the first game is important."

The Bulls may say the Jazz are the favorites, but that doesn't mean the two-time defending champs lack for confidence.

"I don't think any of us think we're going to lose, let's put it that way," said Kerr.

"We feel good. We've beaten this team before," said Longley. "We didn't do good against them this year, but that will prove to be an anomaly."

Much has been made of the Jazz's 10-day layoff when compared to the Bulls being pushed to the limit by the Indiana Pacers and having just two days between Game 7 in the conference finals and Game 1 tonight.

Some feel the long rest will be a detriment to Utah, breaking up their rhythm and making them rusty. Others feel it will be to the Jazz's advantage, as they got some much-needed rest and had a chance to have nagging injuries heal.

"Time will tell (if the layoff was good or bad)," said John Stockton. "We've worked hard this week in practice. Coach has certainly run us enough to stay in shape, but there is something different between the game and any practice."

By the same token, the Bulls needing a Game 7 has been seen as a blessing or a curse - depending on the perspective. Chicago pulled together to beat the Pacers and have some momentum from their big win on Sunday. But will they be fatigued before the series even starts?

Both Jordan and Pippen admitted that they were tired at the end of the Pacers series but say they have new life now.

Malone, meanwhile, will be out to play better this time around than he did last year in the Finals, when he shot 44 percent from the field and 60 percent from the foul line.

"It was probably a C-plus or B performance," Malone said of his showing a year ago. "Hopefully I can have an A."

Certainly, Malone is the biggest worry for the Bulls. While the vast majority of the players from last year's series are back - the Jazz return their top 11 players and the Bulls 10 of their top 12 from a year ago on the roster - Chicago may miss not having Brian Williams and Jason Caffey. Both Williams and Caffey had turns guarding Malone a year ago.

Since Rodman doesn't match up well against Malone, expect Longley to be on the Mailman the majority of the time.

While not going to Del "Karate Kick" Harris extremes in his pre-series criticisms of Malone, Bulls coach Phil Jackson said that Malone's "flopping" and tricks can give him an "an extra eight or 10 points a game that can take a 20-point (performance) and make it into a 30-point game and a game buster."

The Jazz, meanwhile, know Jordan and Pippen will get their share of points. The other guys are the Bulls they need to control.

"The key for us is to make sure guys like Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley don't kills us," said Shandon Anderson.

The wait is over. Let the games begin.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The series

NBA Finals

Game 1 Chicago

June 3 at UTAH

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

Game 2 Chicago

June 5 at UTAH

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

Game 3 UTAH

June 7 at Chicago

Sun. TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.

Game 4 UTAH

June 10 at Chicago

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

If necessary

Game 5 UTAH

June 12 at Chicago

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

If necessary

Game 6 Chicago

June 14 at UTAH

TV, TIME: NBC, 5:30 p.m.

If necessary

Game 1 Chicago

June 17 at UTAH

TV, TIME: NBC, 7 p.m.