Marty Burns
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Lakers forward Karl Malone wasn't about to give up his torn No. 11 jersey after his team's big Game 4 OT win in Houston last Sunday.

"I'm giving [it] to my little boy [Karl Jr.]. I'm not washing it or nothing," said Malone, who had 30 points and 13 rebounds. "I told Rudy [Garciduenas, the equipment manager], 'Don't even wash it. I'm going to take it home and give it to my little boy.'"

Malone can only hope it's not the last souvenir he gets from this year's NBA playoffs. The Lakers, despite their 3-1 series lead, are still as frayed around the edges as the Mailman's jersey. Were it not for Shaq's rebound put-back of a Kobe Bryant airball in Game 1 and Malone's age-defying heroics in Game 4, L.A. could be the team facing elimination.

The Lakers simply have not looked like a championship squad against Houston. They have spurts, especially when the Big Four are on the floor. Then they go through long stretches on offense where they can't make a basket. Basically, L.A.'s playoff experience has carried it against the greener Rockets.

When tempers flared in Game 4, and Bostjan Nachbar ripped Malone's jersey, it wasn't surprising that the Lakers responded with a 15-4 run to retake the lead. Bryant and Malone then took over in OT, helping L.A. storm back from a four-point deficit to steal the victory on Houston's home floor.

Malone, Bryant, Shaq, and Gary Payton have all been in so many big games. At critical moments, when emotions are running high, they know how to make plays. The four future Hall of Famers make the Lakers dangerous because they won't go down without an epic fight.

But assuming the Lakers finish off the Rockets, will the Lakers' playoff experience help them as much in the next round against the Spurs? It didn't save them last year against San Antonio. The way the Spurs are playing, it looks as if the Lakers are going to need more sensational play from the 40-year-old Malone.

The loss of Wally Szczerbiak to a back injury probably won't affect the T'wolves too much right now. Minnesota has more than enough firepower to get past Denver, and Fred Hoiberg can fill in the extra minutes.

"Wally has been very important to us, but he hasn't been starting for us," T'wolves coach Flip Saunders said. "So it's not like we have to change a lot how we approach the game."

The real danger for Minnesota would be later in the playoffs, if Szczerbiak can't return. Against bigger teams like the Kings (and later, the Spurs or Lakers), the T'wolves figure to have a harder time scoring inside. They could miss Wally's outside shooting dimension, which helps open up the lane for Kevin Garnett and others.

With Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson (ankle) out of the playoff lineup, the T'wolves are pretty much back to the team that began the season. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Without Szczerbiak and Hudson, Minnesota was 37-15 at the All-Star break.

They got broomed out of the playoffs. Now it's time for the Celtics, Knicks and Grizzlies to start sweeping up their own houses. Here's a quick look at the offseason situation each team faces:

The Celtics: The first order of business for GM Danny Ainge is to find a new coach. Interim coach John Carroll did a respectable job leading Boston to the playoffs, but he's been let go and could end up on Jim O'Brien's staff in Philly. Paul Westphal, Lionel Hollins, Doc Rivers, Avery Johnson, Sonics assistant Dwane Casey and former Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek are among those reportedly on Ainge's short list. Westphal, currently head coach at Pepperdine, is considered the frontrunner. He worked with Ainge in Phoenix and his up-tempo system fits Ainge's vision for Boston's future.

The Celtics likely will lose 7-foot center Mark Blount to free agency, but they hope to have Raef LaFrentz healthy next season. Boston needs to add another big man, but will have only the midlevel exception to offer free agents. The Celtics did save money in the Vin Baker buyout, and ownership has committed to putting it back into team. Boston also has three first-round picks, 15, 24 and 25 (the latter from Dallas and Detroit, respectively), but they won't help much unless packaged in a trade.

The Knicks: New boss Isiah Thomas accomplished his goal of getting New York to the playoffs. Unfortunately for him, he still has a team with no low-post presence and a roster full of big contracts. That means New York likely will go into next season with the same core of Stephon Marbury, Allan Houston, Tim Thomas and Kurt Thomas.

The Knicks desperately need a big man who can score inside and would like to add another shooting guard in case Houston's knee problems flare up again next year. Rasheed Wallace, Erick Dampier, Marcus Camby, Jamal Crawford and Bryant are on Isiah's wish list, but New York is over the salary cap and therefore it can offer free agents only the $5.1 million midlevel exception. The Knicks don't have a first-round draft pick this year, having sent it to Phoenix in the Marbury trade.

The Grizzlies: Forget those dreams of landing Kobe. As much as GM Jerry West might love to snare his former prized pupil from the Lakers, the scenario is far-fetched at best. Memphis is over the salary cap, and Kobe just seems like too much of a big-city guy. More likely, the Grizzlies will have to settle for more modest improvements.

They need a big man who can help Pau Gasol inside. Memphis gave up its first-round pick, No. 23, to Portland in the Bonzi Wells trade, but the Grizzlies have plenty of other tradeable assets in Wells, Stromile Swift, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Bo Outlaw.

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