Los Angeles gets past an attack by hungry Wolves

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

Wed, Jun 02, 2004 - Page 20

Despite everything, here they are. Right where they were supposed to be. Still very much standing. On the verge of another title.

In a season in a playoff series, in a game, that always seemed much harder than it needed to be, the Los Angeles Lakers persevered Monday.

They survived themselves and the Timberwolves. Survived missed free throws and officials' whistles. Survived surrendering a double-digit lead and the most gut-wrenching home game of the season.

It was edge-of-the-seat time Monday as Staples Center pulsated like it had not all season, the Lakers trailing after three quarters but ultimately swamping a desperate Timberwolves team 96-90 and advancing to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in five years.

So despite the continued spats, the missed free throws, the endless soap opera and the very uncertain coming offseason, the often dysfunctional Lakers find themselves in the best position they could imagine -- with six days to rest before opening the finals.

"It's been a long, hard year," Kobe Bryant said. "But we find ourselves back to where we want to be. Now we just have to go get it."

The Lakers will now await the winner of the Pistons-Pacers series in the East, ever confident and reasonably healthy. The heavy favorite to earn coach Phil Jackson a record 10th coaching title.

"The pressure is on us, obviously, to do something unique -- win four out of five championships," Jackson said.

In their wildest season, in their most maddening year, the Lakers found a way to keep winning at home in the postseason, pushing their playoff record at Staples this season to 9-0.

Monday in Game 6 they got a stunning 18 points off the bench from Kareem Rush. The little-used guard scored all his points on 6-of-7 shooting from beyond the 3-point line.

They got a dominating game from Shaquille O'Neal, who added 25 points and 11 rebounds despite picking up his fourth foul in the opening half.

They got enough from a sometimes struggling Kobe, a spark from Slava Medvedenko, a gutty effort from 40-year-old Karl Malone and enough determined defense to earn the Western Conference championship.

"We can still play a lot better," Shaq said.

Of course, he and most everyone else have been saying that all season. A team of superstars, put together for this very moment, somehow ached and struggled through the season.

So it seemed only fitting that Monday's game would be exactly like their season -- straining to its end, everything endlessly more difficult than necessary.

Really, it never should have been this hard. Not the season, naturally, but particularly this playoff series. The Timberwolves were playing without All-star point guard Sam Cassell and point guard Troy Hudson, their key sixth man. The Lakers should have dominated this series, probably should have swept it.

That would have been all out of character, and the singularly consistent mark of this Lakers team has been its inconsistency.

Led by the intense Kevin Garnett and the dangerous Latrell Sprewell, the Timberwolves very much made this a series, very much made the Lakers squirm and sweat, dig a little deeper than most figured would be needed.

"Our consistency as a team has not been there all year long," Rick Fox said. "We are a team that is going to find a way to win a championship.

"But it is not going to be the normal way that people have grown accustomed to seeing us do it."

Monday offered a nervous, uncertain game. The Lakers opened like a determined team, playing hard and with the kind of energy that has not always been there -- even in the postseason.

They pushed their early lead to as many as 13 points in the first quarter. But with 9:44 to play in the second quarter, Kobe picked up his third foul and sat. Officials kept their whistles wet, Shaq picking up his fourth foul just before the half ended.

Boos rained down on the officials like never before heard at Staples. For a moment, the game could have been in Philadelphia.

The Timberwolves took the lead in the third quarter, and the game's intensity only built. Malone, matched against the younger and more athletic Garnett, played with desperation.

With one quarter to go, the Lakers, looking at having to return to Minnesota for a dangerous Game 7, responded one last time.

"There have been enough fluctuations this year where you might question our ability to win a championship," Fox said. "But fortunately in series basketball, when you don't play to the level of your opponent in a couple of games, you can still have the opportunity to win the series."

A Rush 3-pointer gave the Lakers back the lead. And they slowly kept building it, finally creating distance between themselves and the Timberwolves.

Despite everything, they were going to play for a championship.

"With all the things we've been through this year, the guys just continue to play," Malone said. "I really cannot describe it. These guys were unbelievable all year long.

"When you are injured and shouldn't play, this is why I go out and play. This is why I went out and played tonight.

"This is a great feeling and a great opportunity to get out there and get it done."

Right where they were supposed to be.