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Intensity rises in T-Wolves-Lakers series
Updated: 2004-05-25 08:55

Though he's a bit more choosy these days, Karl Malone never backs down from a confrontation. The NBA's highest-scoring power forward ever is too close to his first championship to get sidetracked by a little rough stuff.

Los Angeles Lakers' Gary Payton (20) gets in the face of Minnesota Timberwolves' Wally Szczerbiak in the fourth quarter of game two of the NBA Western Conference Finals Sunday, May 23, 2004, in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves went on to win 89-71 and tied the best-of-seven games series at 1-1. Looking on are Lakers' Derek Fisher, left, Kobe Bryant and the Timberwolves Latrell Sprewell. [AP]

So if the Minnesota Timberwolves intend to stick with their abrasive style of play in the Western Conference finals, Malone won't hesitate to run over another backup point guard.

"We can play that kind of game," Malone said Sunday after Minnesota's 89-71 victory that evened the series 1-1. "We have to match their intensity, and that's something I can do better than I did. I'll bring a different to the rest of the series."

The teams combined for seven technical fouls in the final 8 1/2 minutes, and Malone was ejected for a flagrant foul when he ran over Darrick Martin as the guard attempted to set a midcourt pick.

Malone was fined US$7,500 by the NBA on Monday. Malone wasn't available for comment because the announcement was made after he met with reporters.

But he made it clear he was reacting to previous action involving teammate Derek Fisher.

"You're going to hit, you're going to be hit," Malone said. "You go on from there. I'm not going to let you hit a teammate of mine.

"I'm an elephant, I don't forget."

Though both teams shrugged off the confrontations, more of the same can be expected in Game 3 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. These teams have shown an increasing aptitude for the attitude necessary to win late in the playoffs.

"I think it's only the beginning," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "When you play a team two times in three days, you start to not like each other. We played hard, not dirty."

Desperate to avoid a 2-0 deficit, the Timberwolves cranked up the defensive pressure. In conceding that their opponent gave a better effort, the Lakers expressed disappointment that some of the hard contact went without a foul call.

Saunders simply saw that as a sign of respect.

"The higher the stakes, the quicker the chippiness comes," the coach said Monday.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said there was more to it than that.

"Minnesota kind of upped the ante," he said. "They came out to play a physical game, and they were good at it. Now there are some things that are personal about this series."

Those who doubt Western teams' toughness haven't been paying attention. Except for Kobe Bryant's artistry and their increasingly outrageous rings, the Lakers' three recent championship teams had little Hollywood glamour: Los Angeles always relished a good scrap, whether verbal or physical.

"I think it's more to our favor, playing like that," Shaquille O'Neal said. "If they want to play football, we can play football. It wasn't really that physical to me. It's something I'm used to.

"Now we know what kind of game they're going to play. We made some adjustments. It will be a different game tomorrow."

Malone has applied the tactics he learned alongside notorious agitator John Stockton for 18 years in Utah — and the rest of the Lakers have backed him up.

"That's part of the game," Fisher said. "There are times when teams are looking to deliver a message, and you have to be ready to deliver one of your own."

Fisher sported a puffiness below his left eye Monday — a result of running into a screen set by Latrell Sprewell the night before.

And Fisher was called for a foul on the play.

"I'll stop by the store and pick up a few steaks on the way home," he said with a smile regarding the swelling.

Fisher said he didn't believe Sprewell was trying to hurt him, and said Malone wasn't trying to hurt Martin, either.

Malone's hard foul came shortly after Fisher and several teammates reacted strongly to a foul by Wally Szczerbiak. The Lakers thought Szczerbiak came in too high with his elbows against Fisher.

"We all got acquainted pretty fast," Fisher said. "I would definitely say it's personal now. I expect it to be physical — this is the conference finals."

Regarding the Lakers' sub-par performance, Fisher said: "We just didn't operate last night."

O'Neal certainly didn't, shooting 4-of-10 from the floor and 5-of-14 from the foul line for 14 points. That was a major comedown from the previous five games — four against San Antonio and one against Minnesota — where O'Neal was back to being his dominant self.

"Yeah, very," O'Neal replied when asked if he was disappointed in his performance. "I usually don't play two bad games in a row. I'll be looking to come back to Shaq tomorrow.

"I think I play excellent when I'm angry. I'm angry. Now we know what kind of game they're going to play. We made some adjustments. It will be a different game tomorrow."

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