Mayday! Mayday! The Utah Jazz's best-ever chance to win an NBA title is in a free fall. The Jazz are dropping faster than the gate receipts to "Godzilla." Even Dr. Kevorkian's patients have better outlooks for survival. The Jazz may not quite be barbecued, but they are certainly on the grill with the charcoals white-hot.

If there's ever a time to push the panic button, it's right now for the Jazz. The little-team-that-thought-it-could is in dire straits after Wednesday night's 86-82 loss in Game 4 to the big, bad Bullies.Michael Jordan, a.k.a. the best basketball player ever, was equal to his legend. Scottie Pippen was the equal of MJ. And Dennis Rodman, despite being "a free spirit" (which is a politically correct way of saying "certifiably bonkers"), was in the fourth quarter more than the equal of a former league MVP, who, for some odd reason, did an impressive disappearing act during crunch time.

Utah's third consecutive loss means the five-time world champs are just one win away from the joy of six. The Bulls will get their first of three chances, if necessary, to finish off the Jazz on Friday night in front of the adoring home fans in the United Center.

And while both sides are saying the series isn't over yet, everyone really knows that it is - barring a season-ending injury to Jordan at Thursday's media session.

No team has ever rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win. With John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek looking every bit their combined age of 70 and Karl Malone not delivering when it counts, the Jazz hardly look like the team that will rewrite Finals history with a Lazarus-like comeback.

"We're confident," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "They have to beat us three in a row to win this series, and we know that's a pretty difficult task for any team."

The Jazz actually had a decent chance to win Wednesday's entertaining Game 4, which would have evened the series at 2-2 and ensured that there would be at least one more game this season in the Delta Center. Utah actually had the lead with five minutes to play. The game was tied with three minutes left. And the Bulls were only up by two with under a minute to play - despite the fact that Stockton and Malone were both struggling.

With the game tied and 2:53 remaining, Rodman made a pair of free throws - the first one bouncing around so that it hit every square inch of rim before falling - to give the Bulls a 74-72 advantage. Chris Morris cut the gap to a single point twice for the Jazz, but both times Jordan made inside moves to score over Shandon Anderson, the second time with 1:40 to play.

After a Pippen foul shot gave the Bulls a four-point lead with 1:21 remaining, Hornacek buried a 20-footer to make it 79-77 with one minute left. When Jordan missed a 15-footer, the Jazz looked like they'd have possession of the ball and a chance to tie the game. Instead, a loose-ball foul on the rebound was called on Malone which sent Rodman to the line with 43.8 seconds left.

Rodman, whose been a notoriously bad free throw shooter during the playoffs, sank both attempts to give the Bulls a four-point edge.

"(Rodman) was our most effective free throw shooter and that is the last thing you would expect," said Bulls center Luc Longley.

Toni Kukoc hit a pair of foul shots with 26.6 seconds remaining to put the Bulls up six, 83-77.

After Stockton and Bryon Russell each missed open 3-point attempts, Jordan made a free throw to pretty much ice the game with 15.7 seconds left.

Malone, who didn't even attempt a shot for more than a 10-minute span in the fourth quarter, finally made a 20-footer when the game was all-but over with nine seconds left. Malone finished with a team-high 21 points. But Rodman limited the Mailman to only two meaningless points on three shots in the fourth quarter. Both pulled down 14 boards, but Rodman did it in 13 fewer minutes.

"I'm not going to get caught up in how many shots I've taken in the fourth," said Malone. "I've taken my share in my career and I've taken plenty in the playoffs. It's just one of those things."

Stockton was more aggressive offensively than Malone down the stretch but no more effective. He was only 1-for-5 from the field in the fourth and finished with just seven points for the game, although he dished out 13 assists.

The Bulls, meanwhile, were carried by the big two of Jordan and Pippen on offense. Jordan had some early troubles with his outside jumper - "I was really fighting to find my rhythm," he said - so he took the ball inside. It helped him score a game-high 34 points. Pippen was particularly hot in the first half when he scored 16 of his 28 points. He made 5-of-10 three-point attempts for the game, which may have been his second to last in a Bulls uniform.

"It was a two-man show offensively," said Bulls guard Steve Kerr, referring to the fact that Jordan and Pippen accounted for 62 of Chicago's 86 points.

The game was close throughout. Neither team led by more than seven points all night. Even though his team was 38 points closer to earning a victory on Wednesday then they were during Sunday's 42-point blowout, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was not pleased.

"I'm not sure we really realized the magnitude of a playing situation like this," Sloan lamented.

The Jazz, no doubt, will understand the magnitude of Friday night's game. If they lose, the season will end in disappointment once again. If they win, they'll be back in Salt Lake for Game 6 on Sunday.

"It's not over, by no means," said Jordan. "We have to come out and play a hard game, the hardest game of the year on Sunday."



The series

NBA Finals

Game 1 Jazz 88

Chicago 85

John Stockton leads Jazz with 24-points.

Game 2 Chicago 93

Jazz 88

Jordan scorches the Jazz for 37

Game 3 Chicago 96

Jazz 54

Jazz shoot 20 percent in blowout

Game 4 Chicago 86

Jazz 82

Pippen, Jordan combine for 62 points

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.