PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference first round; Lakers lead 3-1.
The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t sure when or if the youngest of their future Hall of Famers will show up.
It might not matter if the oldest one keeps playing like a 25-year-old.
With Kobe Bryant’s status for Game 5 uncertain, Karl Malone and the Lakers try to close out their first-round series with the Houston Rockets and set up a conference semifinal matchup with the defending champions.
It’s unlikely the Lakers will know until late Wednesday afternoon if Bryant will be available for tip-off. He is expected to be in court in Eagle, Colo., earlier in the day for a pretrial hearing on his sexual assault case.
Bryant missed practice Monday and Tuesday due to the trial, but, according to coach Phil Jackson, was optimistic he’d return in time for Game 5.
“He’s hopeful that the week, the process will be OK, that he’ll be able to get back here in time for the ballgame,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. “That perhaps he’ll have half a day there on Wednesday that’ll allow him the opportunity to get back.”
Malone appears to not be wasting his best opportunity to win a championship before winding down his Hall of Fame career. The 40-year-old forward led Los Angeles to a 92-88 overtime victory Sunday in Game 4, finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds while getting under his younger counterparts’ skin.
“It was typical Karl Malone,” Francis said. “He brings a lot of dirt to the game that’s unnecessary.”
Malone had the last laugh Sunday, drawing Yao Ming’s sixth foul in overtime and converting a three-point play to break his previous Laker high by 10 points.
“There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on in this world aside from what they’re upset about,” Malone said. “They’re upset all the time. If it’s not the owner, it’s somebody else.”
If the Lakers win Wednesday and avoid a trip back to Houston on Saturday for Game 6, they will begin the next round in San Antonio against the Spurs on Monday.
At least one Laker is already looking ahead to that showdown of the last two NBA champions.
“Hopefully I can shine in that series,” said Gary Payton, averaging just 9.3 points through four playoff games. “I know I can play at another level. I can do a lot of things. It’s not happening right now. Next series might be my series.”
Payton has provided one of many distractions in an already turbulent postseason for the Lakers, complaining he did not play in the fourth quarter of Games 2 and 3.
The backcourt of Payton and Bryant often has been ineffective in this series, both shooting below 36 percent from the field. Bryant had 36 points in Game 2, but has averaged 18.3 on 30 percent shooting in the other three games.
Shaquille O’Neal has attempted just 13.3 field goals per game and is a dismal 13-of-42 from the foul line (31 percent). However, the work of Malone, along with Los Angeles managing to pull out two narrow victories has pushed Houston to the brink of elimination.
“I believe in our team,” coach Jeff Van Gundy said of the Rockets’ unenviable position. “If you look at the series, there are two games that we had where they won in the last minute, but it’s going to be tough. They’re a team that can have any of their four best players step up at any time.”
Yao has done a respectable job battling O’Neal, averaging 16.3 points and 8.0 boards in the series, and Francis has scored 20 points per game. However, their playoff inexperience, along with most of the Rockets, has shown.
Houston has committed 62 turnovers through four games, compared to 40 for Los Angeles.
The last time the Rockets faced a 3-1 series deficit in the playoffs was 1995, and they came back to beat the Phoenix Suns in seven games.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Rockets - 7th seed. Lakers - 2nd seed.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Rockets - Francis, 20 ppg and 8.3 apg; Jackson, 11.8 rpg. Lakers - Bryant, 22.8 ppg; O’Neal, 11.8 rpg; Payton, 6.3 apg.