- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS — After watching what Kevin Garnett did to the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Lakers made shutting down the NBA’s MVP their focus. And in Game1 of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers did just that.

Garnett was neutralized by Karl Malone on Friday night as the Lakers took away the Minnesota Timberwolves’ homecourt advantage with a 97-88 victory.

The forward was coming off a masterful performance in the Wolves’ 83-80 Game7 victory over the Kings in which he scored 32 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked five shots — numbers he didn’t come close to reaching against Los Angeles.

If Garnett can’t rebound from his poor performance when the teams face off in Game2 tonight at Target Center, Minnesota likely will be down 2-0 when the teams head back to Los Angeles for Games3 and4.

Also, the top-seeded Wolves head into Game2 with the status of starting point guard Sam Cassell in doubt. The availability of Cassell, who missed the final 13 minutes of Game1 with a sore back, likely will be a game-time decision.

On Friday, Garnett finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and four turnovers, leading to speculation he might have left too much of himself on the court in the victory over the Kings. After the game, though, Garnett was not buying the excuse.

“Fatigue is not an issue,” Garnett said. “This is the Western Conference finals. You suck it up or you go home.”

Although Garnett was the MVP, the Lakers have a galaxy of stars. Their big guns lived up to their billing Friday, something they have been doing pretty consistently in winning five straight games, including four against San Antonio in the conference semifinals.

Massive center Shaquille O’Neal looks as if he has regained the form that helped him earn three consecutive finals MVP awards from 2000 to 2002. O’Neal dominated inside against Minnesota’s big men, finishing with 27 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks.

Normally a horrendous free throw shooter, O’Neal responded well when the Wolves sent him to the line, connecting on nine of 11.

Kobe Bryant added 23 points, six assists and three steals, but perhaps more crucial was Malone’s play against Garnett. Although the Lakers double-teamed Garnett at times, they often left the 40-year-old forward in one-on-one situations, and he more than held his own. And on offense, Malone, the team’s third or fourth scoring option depending on who is on the floor, canceled out Garnett with 17 points, 11 rebounds and three steals.

“Every dribble [Garnett] took, we wanted him to feel like he was crowded,” Bryant said. “When he shot the ball, Karl had a hand in his face. He did a great job.”

While complementing the job Malone did against Garnett, Lakers coach Phil Jackson allowed that Garnett might have been fatigued from Game7 with the Kings.

“Our focus was to go get him,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “But you could tell he didn’t have his normal energy.”

Garnett didn’t receive much help from his teammates. Although guard Latrell Sprewell finished with 23 points, Cassell’s absence hurt. The Timberwolves saw a 67-67 tie late in the third quarter turn into a 78-67 Los Angeles lead at the start of the fourth.

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