One dominant victory over a fellow Western Conference power showed the Los Angeles Lakers might be back in top form.
Two in a row would make it hard to argue otherwise.
With all four of its future Hall of Famers finally healthy, Los Angeles is building momentum with the playoffs approaching.
Beating the Midwest Division-leading Timberwolves after losing the first three meetings would help prove the Lakers are peaking, as did Wednesday’s 115-91 win over the West-leading Sacramento Kings.
“Tonight was the best game of the year for us,” said Shaquille O’Neal, who had 17 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. “We’re right where we want to be.”
Bryant scored 36 points despite flying to and from Colorado earlier in the day to spend several hours at a pretrial hearing on his sexual assault charge, seeing his accuser face to face in court for the first time.
“Basketball is just like a getaway—it’s been that way for me since I was 3,” Bryant said.
The superstar guard was back in court Thursday for another closed-door hearing, but is expected to be available for this contest.
Besides Bryant coming through with a huge performance under severe stress, Wednesday’s win was important for numerous reasons. Los Angeles had lost the only other two meetings this season with Sacramento, and won its five previous games by a total of just 20 points—with two going to overtime and none coming against above-.500 teams.
“We are just trying to get comfortable together,” Karl Malone said. “We’re not talking about statement games.”
This one would be.
Minnesota has won all three meetings by double digits, though the Timberwolves’ 96-86 home victory two weeks ago was the first one in which both teams were at full strength. In 15 years since joining the NBA, the Timberwolves have never won a season series with Los Angeles, let alone swept one.
Coach Flip Saunders’ team, however, has been inconsistent lately, going 6-7 since late February.
The Timberwolves had won three straight before opening a four-game road trip with a 101-92 loss at Denver on Wednesday.
Sam Cassell and Kevin Garnett were both frustrated by the Nuggets’ physical defense. Both players received a technical foul—Garnett for throwing an elbow at Carmelo Anthony—and Cassell fouled out after scoring just six points on 3-for-10 shooting while committing seven turnovers.
“I think for the most part they got the majority of the calls,” said Garnett, who had 24 points and 14 rebounds but took just 12 shots. “We just have to play through it. That took us out of our rhythm a little bit. You can’t use it as an excuse.”