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LAKERS NOTEBOOK: MALONE TARGETS HIS RETURN IN UTAH.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

Between earnest promises not to overdo it, Karl Malone permits himself to be ambitious and even optimistic. He won't risk reinjuring his sprained knee. But he also can't accept missing that next trip to Salt Lake City either, so he's stuck somewhere in between as he counts down the weeks to his anticipated return.

Malone was freed to work out again this week after a three-week ban on physical activity, and the Lakers have given a conservative return date of mid-March.

``They have their date and then I have mine,'' Malone said. ``We'll see what happens.''

That March 8 game in Salt Lake City - the Lakers' last trip there this season - understandably looms large.

``Actually, I'm thinking about before that game at Salt Lake. But of course, you look at that game,'' he said, admitting it would kill him to miss the date against his former team. ``It would. I want to play there. I really do. I don't care if it's five minutes, 10 minutes, the first game back, if I'm able to come back. I want to play in that game, I do.''

--Feeling fined: Gary Payton was fined $15,000 for his part in Wednesday night's scuffle with Golden State's Speedy Claxton. The league fined Claxton $7,500.

``We'll talk about it later,'' Payton said before Friday night's game.

It was an expensive week for Payton, who also was fined $25,000 for pulling out of the skills competition at All-Star weekend. Payton might seek to have that fine reduced through a union grievance.

--Mouthful: After four ejections, three for berating referees, Payton has vowed to restrain himself from here on out. Jackson appreciates the effort, but expects the chatty veteran to be himself.

``I've never seen him change in the years that he's been in this league, he's always been a person that's a free speaker out there,'' Jackson said. ``I've been amazed at how much he's been able to speak to the referees and to players over the course of his career. ... I don't see him being able to play without that kind of aplomb.''

--Also: Horace Grant played Friday night against Philadelphia despite a bout of food poisoning that required him to take intravenous fluids in the hours before the game. He played the first three minutes of the second, but he did not return because he was feeling to weak to continue... As expected, the Lakers activated rookie Brian Cook, who had spent 12 games on the injured list because of a broken right pinkie. ... Malone was named the January recipient of the NBA's Community Assist Award. Over the course of the month, Malone sponsored a shopping spree for 25 middle-school children and a trip to a monster truck jam. Both events were done in cooperation with the Heart of Los Angeles Youth. ... Jamal Sampson took a cortisone shot in his sprained right ankle and will be reevaluated in a few days.

Howard Beck, (818)713-3613

howard.beck(at)dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 21, 2004
Words:503
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