HOUSTON (AP)—A stubborn old man put the Los Angeles Lakers within one victory of the second round.
Karl Malone wouldn’t change his ripped jersey, wouldn’t act his age and wouldn’t admit he did anything dirty. Most of all, he wouldn’t let the Los Angeles Lakers lose control of the series.
On a day when the Rockets nearly evened things up by shutting Los Angeles down in the fourth quarter, Malone’s best game of the playoffs—and perhaps the entire season—led the Lakers to a 92-88 victory and a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series Sunday.
“He had a great game,” teammate Gary Payton said, understating the obvious.
With the intensity level taking a decided tick upward and the distaste between the coaches taking a foul-mouthed turn, the 40-year-old Malone had 30 points and 13 rebounds while playing with the energy of someone half his age.
The last of Malone’s three steals, along with his second offensive rebound, put the finishing touches on the victory.
Game 5 is Wednesday night, with Houston trying to stay alive after coming so close—just as in Game 1—yet failing to win.
Houston held Los Angeles scoreless over the final 4 1/2 minutes of regulation and led by as many as four in overtime before Los Angeles closed the game with an 8-1 run.
Malone surpassed his regular-season scoring high by 10 points, playing most of the game with a ripped jersey after he sparked a first-half altercation.
“They tried to get me to change it, they said it looked bad for TV. I said I don’t care, I’m wearing my shirt,” Malone said. “I almost had to fight (Shaquille O’Neal) for it afterward. I’m taking it home to my little boy, and he’s going to love it.”
Kobe Bryant scored six of his 18 points in overtime, including a three-point play that put the Lakers ahead for good with 40 seconds left. Malone then stole the ball from Steve Francis, and the Lakers let the clock run down, After Derek Fisher missed a jumper, Malone grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled— clinching the victory by making a free throw and then walking away with a satisfied grin.
Malone had been criticized a day earlier by Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who said he should be suspended for being a dirty player, and he got into it with Francis after undercutting Rockets forward Bostjan Nachbar.
“I wouldn’t want a job from them. I could care less about what they’re saying. I’m not losing any sleep,” Malone said. “They’re not writing my paycheck, I’m don’t care to go out to dinner with them, on and on. I don’t care.”
The tension also extended to Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy, who cursed loudly and directly at longtime nemesis Phil Jackson late in the first quarter, then sprinted onto the court during a fracas moments later.
“He yelled at me about his opinion of where I was on the floor. I yelled back with my opinion,” Van Gundy said. “We won’t be smoking the peace pipe any time soon.”
O’Neal was not a big part of the offense for the Lakers, scoring 17 points with 12 rebounds. Malone helped make up for it and joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only 40-year olds to score 20 or more points in a postseason game.
Malone had 20 points, eight rebounds and one technical foul by halftime, getting the tech for storming after Nachbar after the Slovenian forward fouled him on a breakaway layup.
On the previous possession, Malone stuck his hip out as Nachbar went in for a dunk and knocked Nachbar off-balance. Nachbar reached back while still in the air and grabbed the back of Malone’s jersey, ripping it.
“When I looked at it, it looked like I’ve been in a scuffle” Malone said. “I like scuffles sometimes, so I didn’t want to get it changed.”
As Francis confronted Malone, Van Gundy sprinted onto the court—similar to what he did during a 1998 Heat-Knicks playoff series when he grabbed onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg.
Yao’s fifth foul came on a dunk by O’Neal with 10:37 left in the fourth quarter. He didn’t return until 2:38 remained, but the Rockets were able to close the gap while he sat, using a 6-0 run—during which Bryant was poked in the left eye by Francis while going for a loose ball—to pull to 77-75.
Francis nailed a 21-footer to tie it at 81-81 with 39 seconds left.
Bryant missed on a drive with 28 seconds left, and Francis shot an airball against Fisher’s defense. That led to a 24-second violation and gave the Lakers 3.1 seconds for a final shot, but Bryant shot an airball.
Malone drew Yao’s sixth foul with 1:27 remaining in overtime and converted a three-point play to cut the Lakers’ deficit to 87-86, and Bryant scored off a steal—ending his string of seven consecutive missed shots—with 1:12 left.
Francis tied it by making one of two from the line before Bryant drove around Cuttino Mobley, made a layup and was fouled. The three-point play put Los Angeles ahead to stay.
“I love those situations. That’s what I do, close teams out,” Bryant said.
Francis led Houston with 17 points.
Houston shot just 4-for-22 from 3-point range. … Referee Joey Crawford strained a calf muscle in the first quarter and did not return untilmidway through the third quarter.