- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Kareem Rush is usually nothing more than a spectator in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant settle matters on the court as he sits on the bench, especially in the playoffs.

Last night, however, Rush — and not O’Neal nor Bryant — ushered the Lakers into the NBA Finals for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

The second-year forward out of Missouri hit three 3-pointers in the Lakers’ decisive run in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles chopped down the Minnesota Timberwolves 96-90 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

The Lakers, who have won three of the last four NBA titles, will face the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Indiana and Detroit. The Pistons lead 3-2 entering Game 6 in Detroit tonight.

“Everybody needs to give a round of applause to Kareem Rush because he shot the [heck] out of the ball,” Bryant said.

With Karl Malone and O’Neal saddled with foul trouble and Bryant struggling to locate his offense, the Lakers needed a spark. In came Rush, who scored all 18 of his points from behind the 3-point line.

“[The coaches] told me to go out and play my game and be aggressive,” Rush said. “They said, ‘Go have fun. Don’t feel any pressure and enjoy it.’”

O’Neal led the Lakers with 25 points, and he would have had a lot more had he made more than seven of 20 from the free throw line. Bryant finished with 20 but made just six of 17 shots.

Latrell Sprewell led the Timberwolves with 27 points. Kevin Garnett, the league MVP, added 22 points and 17 rebounds before fouling out late in the game.

Rush hit one of his 3s during an 9-2 run to start the fourth quarter that gave the Lakers a 75-70 lead. Later in the quarter, he drilled another to give the Lakers an 89-79 lead that pretty much put the game out of reach.

O’Neal picked up his third and fourth fouls in a span of a little more than a minute near the end of the first half. The second foul came on a somewhat questionable call. O’Neal appeared to graze Minnesota’s Latrell Sprewell on his way to the basket.

As the half ended and the officials left the floor, they were booed by the crowd of 18,997. Even Lisa Leslie, the towering star of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, chided the officials from center court as she spoke into a microphone hawking tickets for the team’s season.

Of course, the Lakers, who blew an 11-point lead in the second quarter and led by two points at halftime, still would have had a decent cushion had O’Neal not missed 10 free throws in the first half alone.

With Bryant scoreless in the second quarter, the Lakers could muster only 20 points in the quarter.

As a result, the Timberwolves, who didn’t lead at all in the first half, bridged the second and third quarters with an 8-0 run that produced their first lead at 52-50. And with Garnett and Sprewell providing most of the offense, the Timberwolves led 68-67 at the start of the fourth quarter.

The Timberwolves played their third game of this series without the services of Sam Cassell (back). It looked as if the things might even up a little when reports circulated Derek Fisher would miss the game because of a knee injury he suffered at the end of Game 5.

However, Fisher, who has been a spark plug at the point — and often has played better than starter Gary Payton — dressed for the game and played 27 minutes.

After dropping Game 5 — and watching their streak of consecutive closeout victories in the playoffs end at 12 — the Lakers were in a grumpy mood. O’Neal, who had accepted his role as the secondary scorer in the first four games, was grumbling he wasn’t as involved in the offense as he would like to be.

And coach Phil Jackson was critical of his two biggest stars, saying O’Neal was getting the ball in the flow of the offense and Bryant had too many ill-advised shots in the loss.

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