Malone, out since Dec. 21 with a sprained ligament in his right knee, began practicing this week and hoped to play Wednesday in the Lakers’ 117-109 win over Boston—but coach Phil Jackson didn’t want him to risk re-injuring the knee.
“We are close,” Malone said. “I just want to run up and down (in practice on Thursday). … It’s going to take me some games to get back into it.”
If the 40-year-old forward plays Friday, he will have missed 39 games after sitting out only 10 in his first 18 years in the league—just six of them due to illness or injury. Los Angeles is 23-17 without Malone and 19-5 with him.
Bryant injured his shoulder against Seattle last Friday and was expected to miss up to a month, but made a quicker-than-expected return Wednesday, finishing with 18 points and 10 assists against the Celtics.
“They trust my decision. I knew I was ready to play,” said Bryant, who sprained the same shoulder earlier in the season and missed six games. “Once I knew I could move my shoulder and elevate it, I knew I’d be out there playing.”
Bryant wore his jersey over a purple shirt that had the left sleeve completely cut off and the right sleeve cut off at the biceps, covering a brace.
“They did a good job protecting my shoulder,” he said after being announced as a starter just five minutes before tipoff. “If I got hit from any angle I wasn’t going to be affected.”
O’Neal, who has battled toe and calf injuries this season, had 28 points and 17 rebounds to help the Lakers improve to 11-3 since the All-Star break.
“It’s time for us to start cranking it up,” Bryant said. “It will feel good to have everybody out on the floor.”
The Timberwolves are mired in their first slump of 2003-04, with three losses in four games. Minnesota lost at home to Houston and Boston—the teams’ first two-game skid since late November—then won at Seattle on Tuesday before a 92-79 defeat at Portland on Wednesday.
“We had energy early, but they didn’t let it get to them,” Sprewell said. “We seemed to lose energy as the game went on, missed shots that we normally make.”
The Timberwolves, 24-9 at the Target Center, will try to avoid losing three straight home games for the first time since March 2002.
STANDINGS (through March 10): Lakers - 2nd place, 5 1/2 GB, Pacific Division. Timberwolves - 1st place, Midwest Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 22.3 ppg; O’Neal, 10.8 rpg; Payton, 5.9 apg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.7 ppg and 13.9 rpg; Cassell, 7.6 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 30; Timberwolves, 97-84. At Los Angeles, Sprewell scored 35 points, Cassell added 28 points and 11 assists, and Garnett had 20 points and 11 rebounds as Minnesota rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Lakers - 18-17 on the road; Timberwolves - 24-9 at home.