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'We can play that kind of game'

LOS ANGELES -- Though he's a bit more choosy these days, Karl Malone never backs down from a confrontation.

Even if it costs him $7,500.

That's how much Malone was fined Monday by the NBA for lowering his shoulder and knocking over Minnesota guard Darrick Martin in the Minnesota Timberwolves' Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Malone was ejected for a flagrant foul Sunday night when he ran over Martin as the guard attempted to set a pick at midcourt with 2:31 left in Minnesota's 89-71 victory.

If the 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. The NBA's highest-scoring power forward ever is too close to his first championship to get sidetracked by a little rough stuff.

"We can play that kind of game," Malone said Sunday after the game. "We have to match their intensity, and that's something I can do better than I did. I'll bring a different [game] to the rest of the series."

Malone 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."

The teams combined for seven technical fouls in the final 8½ minutes.

Though both teams shrugged off the confrontations, expect more of the same in Game 3 on Tuesday night at Staples Center. These clubs 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."

After a career as a gentlemanly jump-shooter, Rick Fox embraced his role as the Lakers' version of a hockey enforcer, picking on smaller players and responding to opponents who took liberties. If there had been a goalie on the court, the Canadian Fox would have run him -- and his teammates would have jumped in on the ensuing brawl.

Injuries knocked Fox out of coach Phil Jackson's rotation this season, but 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," Derek 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 come-down
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."

After seven consecutive first-round losses, the Timberwolves
also discovered the value of chippy, physical play this spring.

Minnesota eliminated Denver in a first-round series featuring
mountains of trash talk and Francisco Elson's declaration that
Kevin Garnett was "gay" for hitting him in the groin.

In the second round, the Wolves' abrasive play frustrated the
Sacramento Kings into two major confrontations. That led to Brad
Miller's ejection in Game 5 -- again after flattening Martin, who
must be an irresistible tackling dummy for big men -- and Anthony
Peeler's dismissal and subsequent suspension for a forearm to
Garnett's face in Game 6.

After those adventures, the Timberwolves' confrontations with
Los Angeles are no cause for stress.

"It was probably less physical than the Sacramento series,"
Latrell Sprewell said after Game 2. "I think the thing you have to
do is keep your composure."

The Lakers never seriously threatened to catch Minnesota after
falling behind by double digits early in the fourth quarter of Game
2, but several players ended up in staredowns or mild shoving
matches with the Timberwolves. Six of the technical fouls were
double calls, and a handful of confrontations went without a
whistle.

And though Malone didn't apologize for clobbering Martin, he
acknowledged the Lakers allowed the tighter officiating to affect
their temperament. Malone also pointed out that Garnett has been
called for just two fouls in the series -- both in the final minute
of Game 1, when the Timberwolves were fouling intentionally.

"Probably the first play of the game, I should have know what
it was going to be like, and I didn't adjust," Malone said.
"Maybe I got the whole team out of sync. It seems like when I
handle things, the team handles things. Maybe I was a little testy,
and maybe it spread throughout the team."