PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Lakers lead 1-0.
The Western Conference finals might be very one-sided if the league MVP can’t outplay his 40-year-old counterpart.
That means Kevin Garnett, likely not to be so drained for Game 2, must recover from his lackluster performance against Karl Malone and the Los Angeles Lakers if the Minnesota Timberwolves hope to leave home with a split.
Malone, along with the help of a swarming Lakers defense, limited Garnett to 16 points in Game 1 as Minnesota lost 97-88 at the Target Center.
While Los Angeles had five days to rest after ending its semifinal series with San Antonio, the Timberwolves had only one day off after an emotional seven-game victory over Sacramento. Garnett refused to use that as an excuse.
“Fatigue is not an issue here,” he said. “This is the Western Conference finals. Either you suck it up or go home.”
Despite those comments, the Lakers thought the Timberwolves appeared to be a tired team.
“It seemed like they were feeling the effects of a seventh game,” said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who scored 23 points. “Their energy wasn’t as high as it usually is, but that’s to be expected. I’m sure it will be much higher on Sunday.”
So must be Garnett’s level of play if Minnesota does not want to go to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Tuesday facing a 2-0 series deficit.
Malone scored more points (17), had an 11-10 rebounding edge and handed out four assists to Garnett’s two Friday. Malone also did not commit a turnover— the Lakers had just eight—while Garnett had four of Minnesota’s 15.
“You realize that (Garnett) basically has put that team on his shoulders and got them to this point. You realize that’s why he’s the MVP,” Malone said. “You’re not going to stop him. You just want to try to make him work for everything.”
While Malone did more than his share, and Bryant’s production was offset by Latrell Sprewell’s 23 points, Shaquille O’Neal made the difference for Los Angeles. The Timberwolves knew it would be virtually impossible to shut down O’Neal, but they at least thought sending him to the foul line would be a way to limit his effectiveness.
That wasn’t the case Friday as O’Neal made 9 of 11 free throws en route to his game-high 27 points. O’Neal entered the game making just 38 percent from the line in the playoffs, but coach Phil Jackson recently showed him a story about an 80-year-old man who made more than 3,000 straight free throws.
“I’ve just really been focusing on my routine,” O’Neal said. “The article said that if you focus too much on the result, you fail.”
O’Neal also had 18 rebounds, five assists and four blocks as the Lakers won their fifth straight playoff game.
Michael Olowokandi fought hard to fend off O’Neal, and his play was a bright spot for Minnesota as he finished with 10 points and 11 boards in 33 minutes. He totaled only three minutes and three turnovers over the final four games of the Sacramento series.
While the Timberwolves received an unexpected lift from that offseason acquisition, one they were counting on a lot more was unable to come through. Sam Cassell hobbled his way to 16 points on 5-of-14 shooting and also had eight assists, but sat out the fourth quarter due to his ailing back.
“Crying isn’t going to make it better,” said Cassell, who sat out of practice Saturday but expects to play in Game 2.
“The fourth quarter it didn’t allow me to get off the bench. I just do what I can do. That’s all I could give my ballclub tonight. I think they understand my situation.”
Derek Fisher exploited Cassell at the defensive end in a crucial stretch late in the third quarter, making back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Lakers ahead for good. Fisher, the Game 5 hero against San Antonio with his buzzer-beating game-winner, had 14 points and six assists.
His 3-pointer with 58 seconds left to play essentially clinched a Lakers’ Game 1 win in Minnesota for the second consecutive year. Los Angeles opened last season’s first round with a win at the Target Center, only to lose the next two games before winning three straight to oust the Timberwolves.
“We’ve been here before, down 1-0 before. We have time to regroup,” Garnett said. “We still have our confidence, the confidence that we can beat this team.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lakers - 2nd seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-2, semifinals. Timberwolves - 1st seed; beat Denver Nuggets 4-1, first round; beat Sacramento Kings 4-3, West semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lakers - Bryant, 25.3 ppg and 6.0 apg; O’Neal, 13.4 rpg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.7 ppg, 15.2 rpg and 5.4 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Timberwolves, 3-1. The Lakers won the final matchup in late March—the only time in four meetings they had O’Neal, Bryant, Malone and Payton all healthy. Minnesota held Los Angeles to 86.6 points per game in its three wins. Garnett averaged 20.5 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the series, and Sprewell added 25.0 points per outing. Bryant averaged 23.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists.