Timberwolves 96, Lakers 86

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Karl Malone’s return was an energizer—for the Minnesota Timberwolves, at least.

Kevin Garnett had 20 points and 12 rebounds and Troy Hudson added 19 points off the bench to lead Minnesota to a 96-86 victory over Malone and the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.

Shaquille O’Neal led Los Angeles with 24 points and 13 rebounds and Malone had 13 points in his first appearance since Dec. 21, but the Lakers lacked the spunk showed by the Wolves in the decisive second half.

“When our minds are right, we’re a tough matchup,” said Sam Cassell, who scored 17 points for Minnesota. Latrell Sprewell added 16 as the Wolves won for just the third time in seven games.

The crowd of 20,391 was the largest ever at Target Center, and the atmosphere felt a little like a playoff game. It was pretty important for both teams, too, with Minnesota needing to maintain its two-game lead over San Antonio in the Midwest Division and Los Angeles looking to re-establish Malone in the lineup before the postseason.

“We feel like when Karl was on the floor, we played them even,” Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said. “When he came out, it changed the complexion of the game.”

Added teammate Kobe Bryant: “He’s 40 years old. Do you realize what he just did?”

Working Hudson, Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi back into the rotation after long injury absences hasn’t been easy for the Wolves, one reason for their recent struggles. But everyone contributed in this one, including ex-Laker Mark Madsen—who finished with six points and seven rebounds.

“There’s no question we’ve been very inconsistent over the last 10 days,” coach Flip Saunders said. “We’ve got to play with the same discipline and the same passion that we did tonight.”

Bryant had 16 points and 11 rebounds for Los Angeles, which lost for only the fifth time in 18 games.

A 3-pointer at the horn by Kareem Rush pulled the Lakers to 74-69 after three quarters, but Minnesota scored the first seven points of the fourth. Hudson, Madsen, Szczerbiak, Sprewell and Garnett each made big plays down the stretch to keep the Wolves comfortably ahead.

Olowokandi, Madsen, Ervin Johnson and Oliver Miller all took turns defending O’Neal, and they combined for 18 fouls.

“You’ve got to give some credit to Minnesota,” Jackson said. “They did some things that were obvious attempts to keep him from getting the ball.”

Malone, activated before tipoff after missing 39 games with a sprained knee, gave the Lakers a look at the famed foursome they’ve been deprived of for most of this season. After Malone and Gary Payton were signed over the summer to play alongside perennial All-Stars O’Neal and Bryant, the group has been in uniform together for only 22 games.

Originally slated to play about 15 minutes, Malone didn’t look very nimble— but he was certainly productive with 5-for-6 shooting in 21 minutes.

“I think coach wanted to play me more,” Malone said. “I’m sure he just thought that was enough. I felt really good, condition-wise. I think everyone’s just being cautious.”

Bryant, who missed 12 of his first 13 shots, is 10-for-36 from the floor since returning from a sprained shoulder on Wednesday.

Trailing 45-41 at the half, the Lakers got a boost from seven quick points by Bryant early in the third quarter—the last a 22-footer that cut the Wolves’ lead to 50-48.

The Lakers tied it three times in the period but never pulled ahead as Hudson scored 10 points over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the third.

“Troy Hudson absolutely loves playing against us,” Bryant said. “But ifeverything was flowing right, we could have won this game.”

Notes

The Timberwolves improved to 3-0 against the Lakers this season. … The Lakers got Horace Grant back, too, after a hip flexor strain kept him out more than two weeks. Grant had four points in 11 minutes. … The previous arena record crowd of 20,347 was set less than three weeks ago against San Antonio. … Payton picked up a technical foul after the halftime buzzer for griping about the officiating. Cassell made the penalty free throw before the third quarter began. … Jackson was asked before the game to respond to a report that friends of his believe his chance of coming back next season are less than 50-50. “There’s a chance I’ll return next year,” he said. “There’sa chance I might not. But I don’t know right now.”

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 LA Lakers
K. Bryant K. Bryant
6-20,  16 Pts
11 Rebs, 5 Assists
 Minnesota
K. Garnett K. Garnett
9-20,  20 Pts
13 Rebs, 2 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists