PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference finals; Lakers lead 3-2.
Now they must do it again.
Having prevented the Lakers from closing out a series for the first time in four years, the Timberwolves again won’t have Sam Cassell as they try to end the Lakers’ playoff perfection at home in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
Los Angeles took a 3-1 series lead into Minneapolis on Saturday having won 12 consecutive postseason games when having a chance to clinch, but lost 98-96 to the Timberwolves. It was the Lakers’ first defeat with an opportunity to finish a series since falling to Indiana in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on June 16, 2000.
“Those things eventually have to come to an end at some point,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said.
To get back to the Target Center for Game 7, Minnesota must hand Los Angeles its first playoff loss at home since its season-ending Game 6 defeat to San Antonio in last year’s conference semifinals. The Lakers have gone 8-0 at Staples Center this postseason, and none of the last seven have been decided by fewer than seven points.
“They’re so powerful and have so many weapons that if we limit their runs and stay in the game, anything can happen down the stretch,” Timberwolves guard Fred Hoiberg said. “Our mindset after we lost Game 1 was that at some point in time, we need to go out and steal one in L.A. Hopefully we can do that on Monday.”
Hoiberg played a key role Saturday in Minnesota overcoming the absence of Cassell, who did not play due to his ailing hip and back. Hoiberg scored 14 points in 38 minutes off the bench and helped with the ball-handling duties, along with Latrell Sprewell and Kevin Garnett.
“It’s killing me, personally, knowing what I can do for us against the Lakers,” Cassell said. “I feel sorry for Freddy (Hoiberg) when he’s got to do my job.”
Cassell has been ruled out of Game 6, again leaving the Timberwolves without their All-Star point guard and possibly their best clutch player. He has not played in the fourth quarter in any game of this series.
Sprewell and Garnett are well aware of the extra burden.
“We knew we had to carry the team, and that’s just going to have to continue,” Sprewell said. “With Sam being out, it’s on our shoulders.”
Sprewell scored 28 points Saturday, including 11 straight in the fourth quarter as Minnesota built a 17-point lead. Los Angeles made it a close game down the stretch, but Garnett helped keep the Timberwolves in control by hitting five free throws in the final two-plus minutes.
It was the best game of the series for both Garnett, who had 30 points and 19 rebounds, and Sprewell, who made 11-of-21 from the field and had five assists.
“We don’t consider this thing over,” Garnett said. “We know we’re a good team. We’re confident we can win. … The biggest question in our minds is, ‘How do we carry this over to L.A.?”’
Bryant was forcing the action in the second half as the Timberwolves often went with a smaller lineup, one which presented problems for O’Neal at the other end as he had to cover Garnett. On offense, O’Neal was constantly crowded as he took just 11 shots from the field and went nearly 24 minutes between field goals, fouling out with 17 points and 13 boards.
O’Neal left the Target Center quickly, brushing off reporters who asked about his meager shot total.
“You’d have to ask the guys who didn’t get me the ball,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Bryant had 23 points and seven assists, but committed a game-high four turnovers and went 4-for-12 in a frustrating first half while his teammates mostly stood around and watched.
“They were trapping me all over the floor. They got after me pretty good,” Bryant said. “But the thing is, when you do that, you’re going to leave open our shooters. Tonight, shots just weren’t falling for them. But they will the next game, and then you’re going to have to rethink your defense.”
Despite Bryant’s comments, the Lakers shot 50 percent from the field in Game 5. The bigger problem was at the free-throw line, where Los Angeles made just 13-of-24 and Minnesota went 26-for-32.
The previous two games in Los Angeles, the Lakers went to the foul line 74 times, compared to 35 for the Timberwolves.
“I thought we didn’t play very smart. We didn’t move the ball well,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after Game 5. “We got most of our shots off the dribble. We got a lot of shots, but not good shots, and had too many turnovers.”
The Lakers, seeking their fourth trip to the NBA Finals in five years, have never blown a 3-1 series lead. Only seven teams have come back to win a series after losing three of the first four, and just 17 have forced a Game 7.
If the Timberwolves can do it, this series will be decided Wednesday night in Minneapolis.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Timberwolves - 1st seed; beat Denver Nuggets 4-1, first round; beat Sacramento Kings 4-3, West semifinals. Lakers - 2nd seed; beat Houston Rockets 4-1, first round; beat San Antonio Spurs 4-2, semifinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Timberwolves - Garnett, 24.5 ppg, 14.5 rpg and 5.3 apg. Lakers - Bryant, 25.4 ppg and 5.9 apg; O’Neal, 14.1 rpg.