You don't have to beat the Utah Jazz over the head to teach them a lesson.

In 1996, the Jazz reached the seventh game of the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. They came within a couple of minutes of defeating the Seattle SuperSonics, losing the final game in Seattle. Like many heartbreaking experiences, it also turned out to be a learning experience.For one thing, the Jazz became convinced that homecourt advantage really means something. They came away from that defeat convinced that if they'd played that seventh game in Salt Lake, they'd have beaten Seattle.

For another thing, the Jazz realized they really were capable of playing Finals-level basketball.

"When we lost to Seattle, it was maybe the first time we felt we belonged in a Finals, at least to attempt a Finals," said Jazz guard John Stockton. "That helped us going into the next year."

With the lessons learned in Seattle firmly in place, the Jazz last year clinched homecourt advantage in the West, which they parlayed into their first trip to the Finals. They lost there, in six games to the Chicago Bulls, but again, they came away feeling they had proved they belonged.

"Granted, the Bulls beat us, and they did all the things that champions did," Stockton says of that series. "But everybody left the locker room feeling we belong in the Finals."

"That's what eats everyone up," said Jeff Hornacek, the Jazz's other starting guard. "One game (in the Finals) was not a contest. Four of them were very close. That really eats at you. With a turn here or there, it would have been us winning it, not them."

Along with the feeling of coming so close that they could taste it, the Jazz discovered other things.

They learned, for instance, that you can't count on your stars - unless one of them is Michael Jordan - to carry you on their shoulders through a grueling seven-game series.

"Other players than your stars have to step up and make plays," Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa pointed out. "That deep in the playoffs, top players get focused on and taken out of their game. Even against the Bulls, with Jordan, it was Steve Kerr and Ron Harper who time and time again hurt us with big plays."

Utah also learned that lapses, which can be overcome in the regular season, are deadly.

"You have to play at your highest level every time down the floor," said Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan. "All it takes is one three- or four-minute negative stretch to turn a game around, and that can turn a series around."

Perhaps the most important thing they discovered is that the Finals are more about mental toughness than physical ability.

"In a seven-game series, the better team, the team that's tougher mentally, always wins," Chiesa said.

"It's not about who wants it; everyone wants it. It's about who is tough mentally."

You'll note the Jazz aren't one of those teams that come away from a defeat shaking their heads and declaring themselves the better team, or their opponents just lucky, or making any other excuses. They understood that it was their own failure that left them No. 2.

But you'll also note the Jazz genuinely believe they could have beaten Chicago. Whether it's a realistic frame of mind or not is debatable, but the simple fact is the Jazz became convinced that they belong.

Karl Malone, especially, believes that Finals series was one that got away.

"There were situations that we didn't do the things that we were capable of doing," he says. "We didn't play the kind of ball at certain times that we did in winning 64 games."

Despite those 64 wins, Utah fans went into a near-panic when last fall rolled around and it became apparent the team actually intended to open the season with essentially the same roster as last season. The team re-signed five of six free agents last summer and awarded a contract extension to center Greg Ostertag, to keep him from becoming a free agent after this season. The team lost only seldom-used forward Stephen Howard from its postseason roster, and he was replaced by first-round draft pick Jacque Vaughn.

Management's argument was that the team it had was good enough to get to the Finals, so why change it? Fans argued that with the West powers taking steps to improve, the Jazz also needed to take steps to keep pace. Not surprisingly, management proved to have the clearer insight.

For a while, though, it appeared as if the fans might have a point. The Jazz were drubbed by the Lakers in their season-opener, and they lost three of their first five games against the Lakers, Sonics and Spurs.

Then again, the Jazz played all of those games without the virtually inde- structible Stockton. After missing just four games in his previous 13 seasons, the team's playmaker went down with a knee injury that caused him to miss the first 18 games of 1997.

The Jazz went a respectable 11-7 in Stockton's absence, staying within hailing distance of the division-leading Spurs.

In the process, they proved management's thesis - that they'd be better off in the long run keeping a good team intact. One particular re-signing alone verified that.

Utah's pattern in the past has been to keep backup point guards around only for a couple of seasons, until they start thinking

they're worth big bucks, then cut them loose. So when Howard Eisley became a free agent last July 1, everyone expected the Jazz to make little effort to keep him around. But they fooled a lot of people by signing the third-year point guard to a three-year deal. Their explanation? They'd finally found a backup who was happy being just that-a backup-at least for the time being. And Eisley's performance in the playoffs proved that the Jazz are a much better team when Stockton's caddy comes in and doesn't stumble all over himself.

The fans almost got what they wanted when the team made a surprise swap just three days before the trade deadline. Having admired Rony Seikaly from afar for years, the Jazz convinced the Orlando Magic to part with the veteran center in exchange for Greg Foster, Chris Morris and Utah's first-round draft pick this year.

But that deal fell through when Seikaly decided he'd rather be a stud in Greece than the fourth-best player in Utah, and the fan disappointment was palpable.

Elated the day before, the Jazz faithful flooded the talk-radio phone circuits with calls expressing their bitter disappointment. The Jazz, however, responded in typical fashion.

"If he doesn't want to be here, we're better off," said Scott Layden, Jazz vice president for basketball operations after the deal went kaput.

Players reflected a similar attitude. The night it became apparent that the deal had collapsed - and while Foster and Morris sat in a hotel in Orlando - a shorthanded Utah squad went out and annihilated the Knicks.

The Jazz clearly wanted to make a point that they'd be just fine without Seikaly on board.

Folks around the league took notice, even in Chicago, where Michael Jordan prophetically said he expected to meet the Jazz once again in the Finals.

"They play with a lot of heart, a lot of desire," Jordan said. "They're the team to beat because of the mental advantage of having been to the Finals.