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Lakers Have a Roll Model

Times Staff Writer

Karl Malone ducked his doctor’s appointment on Monday because, really, what’s the man going to do for him?

So he has a swollen shooting hand and, despite the advice of team trainers, a knee he refuses to brace. And still, at 40, at less than full health but apparently at full obsession, he is again the Lakers’ conscience, just in time for the playoffs.

Near the end of a teammates-first career, Malone stands second all-time in scoring, an example not always taken by all of the Lakers. But he was again their everything on Tuesday night, when the Lakers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 107-88, at Staples Center.

Nearing the end of his second decade in the NBA, Malone played his 34th game for the Lakers and again trapped and slashed and ran and fought, and the Lakers won their ninth consecutive game, and their 20th in the last 24.

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“Karl,” Shaquille O’Neal said, “is playing with a passion. He’s out there rebounding, keeping everybody together. He and Gary [Payton] are probably the soul of our team right now.”

That’s in an organization built around O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

“When I say soul, I mean Karl’s out there passing the ball, getting everybody involved,” O’Neal said. “And Gary’s out there making faces and being mean. We feed off it.”

The torn knee ligament close enough to healed, Malone had 11 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and one contented postgame grin. Bryant (23 points) and Payton (20 points) scored, O’Neal (15 points, nine rebounds) plundered and Malone, again, filled in the gaps, the places that without him would still be empty.

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“We didn’t know exactly how that was going to work,” Coach Phil Jackson said of the acquisition of Malone. “We just had belief it would, that his activity on the defensive end and his way around the court was going to be a big influence on the whole team.”

The Lakers generally fell in behind him, and two nights after their 12 assists against the Utah Jazz established a season low, they had 30, 11 in the first quarter alone.

While Bryant makes them dynamic and O’Neal makes them powerful, Malone often makes the Lakers go.

Chasing a third-quarter trap against the Hornets, Malone followed point guard Darrell Armstrong nearly to midcourt and into Payton’s arms. Armstrong flung a pass to Steve Smith at the three-point arc, who missed from 24 feet ... over O’Neal’s fingertips. He pushes them.

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“We all want to think we make a difference,” Malone said.

On a team that has substance-over-style lapses, particularly before April, Malone seems to bloody somebody -- teammates, opponents, himself -- every game. On a team that plays ‘em a month at a time, Malone grinds possession by possession.

He does more with four points and seven rebounds -- his line in the 17-point victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves last week -- than many players with three times the numbers.

Asked what he thought about being named the team’s “soul” by the team’s godfather, Malone smiled, included Payton and said, “I don’t think we get caught up in the scoring. We do what we do to help this team out.”

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So, against an undermanned team that might otherwise have been overlooked, the Lakers had themselves a fourth-quarter coast.

Jackson put O’Neal on the wing and Malone in the post more often than they had all season, which led to O’Neal’s failing to reach double-digit rebounds for the first time in 12 games, but also some confusion among the Hornet big men.

“It’s cool,” said O’Neal, yearning to play away from the basket at times, and happy to have Malone willing to log some of the difficult possessions inside.

The Lakers finished 15-0 against the Eastern Conference at home, the first time they’ve been undefeated against the East in 24 seasons and the second time in franchise history.

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It didn’t start out as easy.

The Hornets were without starters Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn, and the Lakers adjusted their game.

Meaning, of course, that they played the early minutes passively, figuring the Hornets, losers of four of five games, would faint away at the sight of the Lakers in their crisp gold uniforms.

Didn’t happen. The Hornets led, 9-0 and 16-4, before the Lakers caught them at 35-35.

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