There is nothing to fear but fear itself. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It's not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, but the size of the fight in the dog. If you want to be the best, you need to face the best.

Have we left out any underdog axioms?

Having passed the midway point in the season with a 21-24 record, there may be no better time for the Jazz to employ against-all-odds adages than now. That's because this week they're playing some of the league's elite. Last Saturday resulted in a 103-89 loss at Dallas. Monday at the Delta Center it was San Antonio, tied with the Mavericks for the best record in the West and second-best record in the league.

So what happened?

Exactly what is supposed to happen when a .500 team meets a .773 team — the better team won.

The Jazz hung within striking distance of the Spurs until late in the game. After that, well, SOS (Same Old Stuff). The Spurs walked off with a 79-70 win.

"They're just a great team," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

That the Jazz would lose to the Spurs for the 21st time in the last 23 meetings was no surprise. Of more concern now is that they have three more games this week against teams that could have a major bearing in the playoff picture. If the Jazz win two or three of the games, they still might make the playoffs. If they lose them all, they'll be as over as Tom and Nicole.

Arriving Wednesday is Denver, one of two teams ahead of the Jazz in the race for the Northwest Division lead. Despite losing their last two, the Nuggets have won seven of their last 10. Apparently they looked around and realized — carpe diem! — no one else in the division was especially worthy.

Wednesday's game will be followed by back-to-back outings Friday and Sunday against Sacramento. Although the Kings are struggling, they had more than enough firepower to handle the Jazz, winning by 36 in November.

Now they've added Mr. "Tru Warrior" himself, Ron Artest, who should provide some sort of show — either on court or in the stands.

Thus, the Jazz can pretty much hang their hopes on this week. Five losses in their current state would just about bury their playoff plans.

Oddly enough, the Jazz weren't out of the game against the Spurs until late. When you're a 50 percent team, that's how it goes. Sometimes you look prepared to take over the world, as was the case when the Jazz beat Detroit not once, but twice earlier this season. Other times, well, there was that night in Sacramento when the Kings scored enough points in just three quarters to beat the Jazz handily. Monday against the Spurs, Utah's problem was layups; it made just 11 of 23.

"We shoot layups every day, and some I've never seen before that were shot tonight," said Sloan. "It's like (former coach) Frank Layden had a great line: It's not like diving, where you get points for difficulty."

Monday was another of those defining nights, when an also-ran gets the chance to gauge itself against the defending champions. The Jazz didn't play well, but at least they played hard. It's true for awhile they flirted with setting a team mark for dreadful shooting. With 4:15 remaining in the third period they were still making just 26 percent of their shots, which would have been an all-time low. Still, they still trailed by only eight.

But in the final period the Spurs prevailed. Tim Duncan scored a quick six points to help boost a four-point edge to nine. The Jazz's hopes faded when Mehmet Okur's 3-pointer which would have pulled them within four — rimmed out with 2:44 remaining.

Considering the Spurs' imposing lineup with Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Michael Finley, Sloan didn't seem all that upset. For sure he wasn't surprised. After all, it is the Spurs.

Which brings to mind another cliche coaches used say when their team was struggling: "We're only two players short of a great team — Magic Johnson and Larry Bird."

After five losses in the last six gams, the Jazz, might want to add Michael Jordan to that list.