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Malone Again, Naturally

Game 4: Utah forward scores 42, Lakers in disarray early in 110-95 loss that gives Jazz a 3-1 series lead.

May 11, 1997|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two minutes in, their coach and point guard/captain were in conflict on the bench, arguing and cussing and gesturing, captured by national television in the biggest game of the season, Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals with the chance to tie the best-of-seven series. Their power forward isn't playing much and rebounding even less.

Deal with the Utah Jazz? Forget that. The Lakers on Saturday afternoon had enough trouble dealing with the Lakers.

A season of what-might-be inched closer to what-could-have-been with the 110-95 loss to Utah before 17,505 at the Forum, earning a 3-1 lead for the Jazz and the chance to apply the clincher Monday night in Salt Lake City. Where the Lakers are, in the present, of course is obvious.

"Bad shape," Nick Van Exel said.

He meant in the series. The Lakers aren't doing so hot in other areas either, not when Van Exel and Del Harris have a shouting match over Van Exel's getting yanked with only 1:57 gone to settle a communication problem, and not when Elden Campbell has 17 rebounds in the series.

Now, to save the season, they get Game 5 at the Delta Center, where the Jazz is only 42-3 this season, including the playoffs. Elimination looms, a far more daunting situation than any two knee injuries could create.

As if Saturday wasn't bad enough. Karl Malone, out for revenge.

Malone was coming off his disastrous two-for-20 game, though he was able to rationalize it, noting that kind of thing only happens every nine years or so. What came next has been a far more regular occurrence.

He scored 42 points. He made all 18 free throws, setting an NBA playoff record for the best single-game run. He made two of his first eight from the field, then went 10 for 19 the rest of the way, finishing 12 for 27.

"Everyone knew he was going to come back," Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek said. "He didn't have to do any of that rah-rah stuff before the game to show he was pumped up. We knew he would be."

Malone's intent had been for something different, with a mind-set established Friday. Usually content to hang around the hotel, he instead ventured out and about Southern California for one of the few times in his 12 years of coming to town, joining teammates Bryon Russell, Chris Morris and Shandon Anderson at Venice Beach. When Anderson, the backup small forward, suggested renting bikes, everyone agreed--and put it on the rookie's credit card.

Come Saturday, it was a different Malone. And a different outcome.

"You just want to come out and play," he said after his biggest offensive output of 1996-97, regular season or playoffs. "I missed some shots early, but I wasn't going to hang my head. I was just going to keep going and see what happened. Then I caught fire like you always look to."

Said Campbell, one of three Laker defenders, along with Robert Horry and Shaquille O'Neal, to get burned by Malone: "I just know he made a lot of shots. The last game, he didn't make many shots, open or when we were close to him. Today, he just made shots."

And he wasn't alone. The Jazz, after its franchise playoff-record-low 28.8% on Thursday, improved to 45.1% on Saturday. From 24 baskets in Game 3 to 24 baskets by two players alone in Game 4, Malone and Russell with 12 each. Russell, who attended San Bernardino High and Long Beach State, got four of his on three-pointers and finished with 29 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.

Between the two, they accounted for 22 of the Jazz's 31 points in the fourth quarter, including 16 of the final 21. That was enough to put away the Lakers, who were within 89-85 with 7:05 remaining after rallying from 18 points down with four minutes left in the third quarter but were unable to get any closer.

Malone had one stretch soon after of 10 consecutive Utah points, hitting from the perimeter when O'Neal was put on him. That made for an eight-point lead with 2:52 showing, insurmountable for the Lakers, especially as they went without a field goal and managed only two free throws from Van Exel in the final three minutes.

"Guys stepped up to the task, especially Karl and Bryon," Utah's Antoine Carr said. "We knew what had to be done, and we went out and did it."

The Lakers couldn't cool off Malone at halftime, so the Laker fans tried. One threw a cup of beer at the MVP candidate as he prepared to walk into the tunnel that leads to the locker room. It was a partial hit.

Which is more than can be said for the bulk of the shooting by the Lakers. They went 45.3%, but O'Neal gets most of the credit because he made 12 of 19 shots in his first powerful showing of the series.

He came in averaging only 17.7 points, one block and 30.7 minutes and shooting 42.9%, a big comedown from the first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers that presented a far tougher matchup than Greg Ostertag. But his Game 4 was worth 34 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks, an achievement he can't celebrate much because of the outcome.

There's still Monday in Salt Lake City. Beyond that, who knows?

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