SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ John Stockton and Karl Malone may be looking at their last realistic opportunity to take the path never traveled: to the NBA finals.

The first steps will be made beginning Thursday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be making their 14th straight playoff appearance. Utah is in for the 13th straight year, thanks in large part to Stockton and Malone. But the makeup of this team may change markedly before next season.

All-Stars many times over, Stockton (34) and Malone (32) are approaching the twilight of their careers. And seven of Utah's 13 players will either be free agents or in their option years at season's end.

Stockton leads the list of free agents, although he has made it clear he wants to finish his career with the Jazz. Malone has a contract through 1999.

``It's going to be a tough series. We're going into the playoffs and we haven't played well, we've struggled and they've played really well,'' Malone said. ``But I like these kinds of series. You've got to be ready to play; there's no `We'll get 'em tomorrow.'''

Malone has done well against Portland this year, averaging 32.5 points. He got 47 in a 114-104 victory here on Dec. 26. But he says it will take more than that to beat these Blazers.

``(Individual matchups) don't mean a hell of a lot now,'' Malone said. ``What does mean a lot is as a team, as a group, you do the things you have to do. ... You just have to be ready to play, as a team.

``We don't have any secret game plan _ just doing what we're supposed to do, and that's running the floor and playing good defense.''

Malone is likely to draw much of the defensive assignment against Arvidis Sabonis, at 7-foot-3 the most noticeable change in Portland's lineup since the last time Utah played the Blazers. Center Felton Spencer will also be there to help out.

``He has a lot of body, a lot of size,'' Spencer said. ``We're going to have to try to meet him early, try to make him do some things he's maybe not as comfortable with, like taking his shots a little farther out on the floor.''

Portland's Buck Williams faces just such a defensive dilemma in trying to slow Malone.

``The key is not becoming frustrated if he runs off 12 or 13 points in a row, and to basically make him work for his points,'' Williams said. ``You want to cut down his easy baskets and make him shoot some outside jump shots.''

Portland coach P.J. Carlesimo, too, believes the solid defense that characterized his team's late-season surge _ 18 victories in 21 games _ will be needed more than ever against the Jazz.

He certainly takes no comfort in Utah's 5-7 record over the past couple weeks.

``If they were a team that hadn't been there before, a team that hadn't won 55 games, I'd say `yeah.' (But) they've got 55 wins. The only two teams in the West that had better records are Seattle and San Antonio, and they had exceptional records,'' Carlesimo said.