For NBA fans living in Salt Lake City, it's almost become an annual tease. They cheer their hearts out for the Utah Jazz as it wins its usual 50 to 55 games, get excited during the playoffs with the hope this will be the year Karl Malone and John Stockton are able to bring a title home, and suffer when the Jazz gets eliminated short of its goal -- yet another season ending in disappointment.

Which is why there is little excitement in the Utah camp these days, even as the Jazz enters tonight's playoff opener as the top seed in the Western Conference, with a team-record 64 wins under its belt, including 19 victories over its last 20 games of the regular season.

"This is just the cake," Utah center Greg Foster said. "Now we have to put the icing on it."

The cake would only be complete with a trip to the NBA finals. And while the Jazz had the second-best record in basketball this season, it will be a difficult journey that will get under way tonight with the start of the playoffs.

For the Jazz, the journey's start should be easy as it faces an opening-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, making their first playoff appearance since 1993. But it won't be any easier if the Jazz survives that opening-round series, as expected, playing in a conference that includes the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets and Seattle SuperSonics.

For most of the season, many felt that would only mean getting the opportunity to get trounced by the Chicago Bulls in the finals. But something odd happened over the last week of the season: the Bulls, without the injured Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc, lost three games. And while the Bulls are still the favorites to repeat as NBA champions, that little late-season blip for a team that still finished with the second-best record in NBA history (69-13) has yielded some hope for other contenders.

"Other teams are a little more formidable," said Miami Heat coach Pat Riley. "Combined with the question about the Bulls' health, the possibility is there that they can be had in a game or two."

Or maybe even in a series, which is possible in a conference in which the 54 wins the Charlotte Hornets earned this season brought them only a sixth-place finish. Six teams in one conference with at least 54 wins has never happened before in the NBA.

"I think teams 2 to 7 can either lose in the first round or get to the finals," said New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy.

Van Gundy knows how difficult the East will be, with his team facing the Hornets in a first-round series that begins in New York tonight. The Knicks were able to secure the home court in the first round by beating the Bulls in the final game of the season.

And here's the rub for the unpredictable Knicks: They were one of two teams to beat the Bulls twice, and yet it would not be a surprise to see them knocked off in the first round by a Charlotte team that won three of four games against New York this season (the only loss for the Hornets came without Glen Rice).

To advance, the Knicks will have to find a way to stop Rice, the All-Star MVP who emerged as one of the league's top players this season.

"Ideally, if you were going to play the perfect guy against Rice, he'd be like 7-foot-3 but lean, with the ability to get through screens and the ability to post up," Van Gundy said. "He'd be quick so he didn't get beat off the dribble. Unfortunately, the guy doesn't exist in the NBA."

That same player might also be the answer against Detroit's Grant Hill, who recorded a league-best 13 triple doubles this season. The Pistons, who haven't won a playoff game since 1992, attempt to change their fortunes in an opening-round series against Atlanta that begins tomorrow.

The series will be a playoff debut for Hill, considering he didn't show up last season when he got banged up during his team's three-game sweep by the Orlando Magic in the opening round.

The winner of the Detroit-Atlanta series will likely get the Bulls, who open against the Washington Bullets, in the second round.

Should the Bulls slip in the East, the team likely to take advantage is the Miami Heat, which won the Atlantic Division with a 61-21 record. For Miami center Alonzo Mourning, the playoffs are a chance to atone for his dismal effort in the opening round last season, when he was outplayed by Bulls center Luc Longley.

"Zo's a very passionate, very emotional player and we expect him to not only fire us up, but to play well in the playoffs," Riley said.

The Western Conference playoffs also offer some interesting first-round matchups, none more so than the forth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers opening tomorrow against the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland beat Los Angeles in Sunday's regular-season finale, finishing the season with a 3-1 advantage and denying the Lakers the No. 2 seed in the West.

Still, the Lakers, with Shaquille O'Neal, might be the most dangerous team in the West.

If they survive the first round.

"The Lakers have the fastest, quickest, biggest, most athletic team ever assembled in the NBA," Seattle coach George Karl said.

Karl, who led the Sonics to the NBA finals last year, is hoping his team is able to shake off the turmoil that surrounded the tardiness and unexcused absences of Shawn Kemp over the second half of the season.

The Sonics also plan to hold Lakers guard Nick Van Exel to his vow to buy everyone on Seattle a gift -- up to $100 -- if the Sonics won the Pacific Division. Seattle guard Gary Payton even sent Van Exel a telegram, reminding him of what he said.

"I'm going to get my money," Payton said. "The next time I see Nick, I won't be broke."

That meeting could be on the court, but Seattle will have to first beat Phoenix in the opening round. Surviving that (and that's a big maybe, considering how well the Suns played in the second half of the season) would mean a likely second-round matchup against the Houston Rockets (who will play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the opening round).

Still, the team to beat in the West appears to be Utah, led by the always steady duo of Malone and Stockton.

Malone, at 34, played the best ball of his career over the second half of the season. Stockton is still perhaps the best pure point guard in the game. With time running out on a career full of playoff disappointments (Utah has lost in three Western Conference finals over the past five years), the pair might have that extra incentive to lead their team to the finals.

"I have a lot of respect for 64 wins," Karl said. "I'm happy we don't have to see them until the [West] finals, if we do see them. They're on a run and they have confidence. They're playing great."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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