PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Lakers lead 3-1.
The Los Angeles Lakers need just one win in their next three games to advance to the NBA Finals.
If recent history is any guide, they’ll only need one attempt.
The Lakers have mastered the art of the closeout over the last four postseasons, winning 12 straight games when there’s a chance to finish a playoff series.
With a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals, they’ve got another opportunity in Game 5 Saturday night in Minnesota. Their record in closeout games is impressive, but the Lakers realize it won’t mean much to a vociferous Target Center crowd intent on helping to keep the Timberwolves’ best season alive.
“It gives us confidence that we’re very good at closing teams out,” Kobe Bryant said Friday at the Lakers’ training complex in El Segundo. “We’re very good at executing, cutting teams up when we have to. … We take a lot of pride in it. This is the position we want to be in.”
The Lakers reached this position with consecutive home victories this week, including a 92-85 win in Game 4 Thursday night. The wins weren’t easy or particularly dominating, but they showcased a hard-earned postseason determination that the Timberwolves still can’t match.
Though the Lakers have won seven of their last eight games, they’re not so far removed from an 0-2 series deficit in the second round against San Antonio—a series that might have been much different if Derek Fisher hadn’t made an improbable jumper as time expired to win Game 5.
So despite their workmanlike domination of the conference finals so far, the Lakers still believe they’ve got much more work to do before they’ll be ready to play for their fourth championship in five years.
“We know nothing has really happened yet that we can gloat about,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “That reputation (as a good closeout team) doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy task at all to win up in Minnesota.”
Still, Jackson wants to finish things now.
“It’s a very difficult situation that Minnesota is in,” he said. “We’ve got to keep them in a box and keep them thinking about going home.”
Only seven teams ever have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, most recently Detroit’s victory over Orlando in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year.
After falling behind early in their second straight loss at Staples Center, the Timberwolves didn’t seem keen on their chances of pulling off the difficult feat.
“Right now, we’re down to a one-game series,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. “I know we’ll have a very rabid crowd when we get back home … and our main focus is to find a way to keep extending it.”
With Sam Cassell limited to ineffective spot play for most of the series with back spasms and an injured hip, the Timberwolves’ offense simply doesn’t scare the Lakers. Latrell Sprewell has shot poorly, and the pressure on Kevin Garnett appears to be suffocating the league MVP.
After Game 4, Garnett was morose—but he refused to blame his teammates, who shot just 33 percent in the loss. Still, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal have received much more help from their supporting cast.
Fisher and Rick Fox played important roles in Game 4. Fisher sprung free for a handful of open jumpers while scoring 15 points, and Fox played his usual tough defense on Wally Szczerbiak and Sprewell.
“What’s happened in the series is that we’ve got a lot of superstars that are playing, but it still has been a series where the role players have decided the outcome of a lot of games,” Saunders said.
Fox has re-emerged in the Lakers’ rotation after falling out of it because of injuries and matchups earlier in the postseason. His hard-nosed play could come in handy if there’s another rough game in Minnesota similar to Game 2, which featured seven technical fouls and Karl Malone’s ejection for a flagrant foul in the final minutes.
“It’s a lot easier to be brave in your backyard, where you’re comfortable,” Fox said. “That’s when you have that bravado. We found ourselves letting them get a little full of themselves (in Game 2).”
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, 25.5 ppg and 5.9 apg; O’Neal, 14.2 rpg. Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.1 ppg, 14.2 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.