If coach Jerry Sloan had his way, 6-foot-11 Jazz center Mehmet Okur would get more help dealing with 7-6 Houston Rockets giant Yao Ming than he is from anyone on Utah's current roster.

It would come, Sloan joked, in the form of now-retired Jazz center and one-time All-Star Mark Eaton — the 7-4 current Salt Lake City restaurant owner who last played in the NBA in 1993.

"We'd like to have Mark to guard him," Sloan deadpanned.

"At least I think we'd keep him away from the basket a bit longer," he added. "He (Yao) can get on top of the basket. We're not physically strong enough to guard him that way."

Okur actually did a quite commendable job in Monday's Game 2 of the first-round NBA playoff series between the Jazz and the Rockets, as Yao finished with 27 points — but needed 24 shots from the field while making just nine to get there.

Nine more of Yao's points came on 9-of-9 shooting from the free-throw line, and the Jazz took a much-more aggressive approach to playing China's All-Star tower of power.

Even Yao noticed the change from last Saturday's Game 1, when he scored 28 and made 8-of-18 from the field.

"They (were) defending differently from the last game," he said Monday night. "They are trying to change my shot, and to block my shot. I think they pushed harder more."

The Jazz, however, paid a price for that on the other end of the floor in Houston.

Okur shot just 2-of-9 himself, scored only four points and could do little offensively to help keep the Jazz from losing 98-90 and falling to 0-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference series that resumes Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

"It's very tough," Okur, who won an NBA title ring as a reserve with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, said afterward, "to try to defend Yao for 30 minutes a game."

No kidding.

And very noticeable, too.

"The real problem is Okur having to guard Yao Ming on the defensive end. By forcing him to play so physical on the defensive end, that's taken away from his effectiveness offensively," former NBA guard and current ESPN NBA analyst Greg Anthony said on the cable network's Web site. "I think Okur's done a decent job, but Yao is so good and so skilled. It demoralizes a player when he has to expend his energy on a tough opponent like Yao."

Okur, who also shot only 2-of-14 and scored just six points in Utah's Game 1 loss, doesn't necessarily seem to have made the connection.

"I don't know why," he said when about his stroke not being what it was during the regular season, when the big Turk averaged 17.2 points and established himself as a first-time All-Star regarded as one of the league's top long distance-shooting big men.

"They are all good shots that I was making during the season," added Okur, who hit four last-minute game-winning shots for the Jazz early in the season. "I need to work on my shot, and I can't give up."

Yet it may take much more than that, and who knows if the remaining games of the Jazz's first playoff series since 2003 will be enough to rectify what another talking head sees as the true root of Okur's postseason problems?

"Mehmet Okur is playing terrible, but that's what happens when you become a standing jump shooter," former NBA star and current TNT commentator Charles Barkley told viewers. "That's why he has to diversify his game.

"He's got to learn to post up, and he's got to learn to put the ball on the floor," Barkley added. "When you become one-dimensional you become easy to guard, and it doesn't show up until the playoffs."

But now the Jazz are in the postseason for the first time since they signed Okur away from Detroit in the summer of '04, and now Barkley's assertion has evidently reared its he-really-may-have-something-there head.

And that's an issue even Mark Eaton — who, long before dishing out fine food and long before being one of the NBA's top defensive big men, was actually once an auto mechanic — could not fix now.


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com