Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Lakers run past a pack of tired dogs

NBA CONFERENCE FINALS Forty-eight hours removed from a stressful Game 7 against the Kings on this same court, the Timberwolves seemed to have some tired legs

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, right, lays up the ball past Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett during the first half of Game 1 of their Western Conference finals series at Target Center in Minneapolis, Friday. Los Angeles won the game 97-88 as O'Neal and Lakers center Karl Malone kept a fatigued Garnett in check.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Somewhere between San Antonio and Minneapolis, as one team's week-long nap bumped up against another team's too-brief recovery, a predictable sequence of events fell into line, and the Western Conference finals opened as a display of everything the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves carried out of the previous round.

The Lakers: happy, unified and rolling.

The Timberwolves: happy to be here and really quite worn by the experience.

Whatever the Lakers wanted in the opener of this series Friday night, they got: Shaquille O'Neal dominating the paint. Kobe Bryant skillfully picking apart the defense. Derek Fisher continuing his magical ride. Karl Malone summoning up the youthful energy to outplay MVP Kevin Garnett.

The result was a 97-88 Lakers victory at Target Center, and so they will return home late Sunday with home-court advantage in the series. And if they return home with more than that, it won't be surprising.

Forty-eight hours removed from a stressful Game 7 on this same court, the Timberwolves were noticeably rubbery in the legs. Latrell Sprewell found the energy to keep them afloat with 23 points, 18 in the second half, but Minnesota got little from its other two stars -- one well defended, the other broken down.

Malone outscored Garnett 17-16, outrebounded him 11-10 and and doubled his assist total 4-2. Meanwhile, O'Neal moved easily to the hoop for 27 points to go with 18 rebounds, four blocks and five assists. Bryant paced himself and still got 23 points and six assists.

The Lakers got what they wanted, and what they frankly expected after watching the Wolves expend so much energy in the past few days. The Lakers had been off since closing out San Antonio last Saturday.

"That's really what it was all about if you ask me," said Rick Fox. "That was too high of a place to be for them on Wednesday night, to turn around in such a short time -- not only to have to prepare for another team, but to have to raise that level again to meet us after six days' rest. And that's what it looked like. It definitely looked that way."

Happily for the Lakers, this series will be played with just one day off between games, which will leave the Wolves with virtually no time to regain whatever stamina they lost to the Kings. The Lakers won their fifth consecutive game, and the Wolves lost Game 1 at home for the second series in a row.

Before leaving the building, coach Phil Jackson scrawled "7 to Heaven" on the locker-room board, continuing his countdown to the championship.

"We know they have better games than they showed tonight, because they're still tired from the last series," Jackson said. "But it was a good win for us, and it's a key for us to get that home court tilted in our direction. Now we have the ability to finish this with wins on our home court."

The Timberwolves tied the game for the final time with 3:01 left in the third quarter but never had a lead in the final 22 minutes of play.

Sprewell got hot in the third quarter, dropped in 11 points and got the Timberwolves their final tie. But the Lakers closed the period with an 11-0 run, getting two 3-pointers from Fisher and another from Kareem Rush to take a 78-67 lead into the fourth.

When the Wolves knocked the lead down to four points late in the game, Fisher struck with another 3-pointer, on a feed from Gary Payton, effectively securing the win. The Lakers led 95-88 with 58.1 seconds left, and Bryant and Fisher met at midcourt to slap hands.

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