- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

MINNEAPOLIS — Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers gave an early preview of the tenacity and cool necessary to win in the Western Conference finals.

And even in defeat, you can bet Kevin Garnett was paying attention.

O’Neal had 27 points, 18 rebounds and a superb performance at the free throw line, and Kobe Bryant added 23 points in the Lakers’ 97-88 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game1 last night.

Karl Malone had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who showed perfect poise against the pressure from the Timberwolves and a deafening Target Center crowd enjoying their team’s first trip to the conference finals.

Executing almost flawlessly in its offensive sets, Los Angeles made just two turnovers in the second half, running the triangle offense and countless pick-and-rolls to perfection. And when Minnesota fouled O’Neal, the 38 percent playoff foul shooter went 9-for-11.

The Lakers nursed a narrow lead through most of the fourth quarter until Derek Fisher, who had 14 points, made a 3-pointer from the corner with 58 seconds left, essentially clinching the win. Fisher also scored eight points in the final minutes of the third quarter to put Los Angeles ahead for good.

Garnett had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Timberwolves, back in action two days after finishing an exhausting seven-game series against Sacramento. Latrell Sprewell had 23 points, and Sam Cassell added 16 points and eight assists despite being limited by his sore back.

Game 2 is tomorrow night. The series moves to Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Coach Phil Jackson’s smile indicated his pleasure with the Lakers’ strong start in their quest for their fourth conference championship in five seasons. It was their fifth straight victory, and it followed much the same script as their four wins over San Antonio: good defense, proficient offense and far too much Shaq and Kobe.

Neither team took a significant lead until late in the third quarter, when Fisher’s back-to-back 3-pointers were followed by another from Kareem Rush. Fisher added a jumper with 2.1 seconds left, and the Lakers went into the fourth up 78-67 while holding Minnesota without a field goal in the final 3:41.

The Timberwolves got within 88-86 on Sprewell’s jumper with 4:04 left, but the Lakers finished the game on a 9-2 run, starting with Devean George’s electrifying one-handed dunk.

Michael Olowokandi had 10 points and 11 rebounds while playing solid defense against O’Neal — but even the best defense only slows the Diesel, who got plenty of good shots and set up others for his teammates by drawing a double-team.

The series’ biggest one-on-one matchup was a draw because Sprewell and Bryant couldn’t stop each other for even a moment. Bryant scored 14 points in the second half, while Sprewell had 18.

The Lakers had five days off after eliminating the defending champion Spurs, while the Wolves had a quick turnaround. The difference in preparation wasn’t obvious in the tight early score, but Minnesota clearly could have used more time to recuperate: Cassell’s aching back betrayed him on every step from the locker room to the court.

Minnesota has a gang of five expendable big men capable of dispensing 30 fouls against O’Neal should coach Flip Saunders choose to play Hack-a-Shaq. But after making less than 38 percent of his free throws in the first two rounds, O’Neal didn’t miss in the second half.

Notes — Malone wore black Dada sneakers with shiny yellow vertical stripes and the “POW-MIA” logo honoring war heroes. … A group of workers were on strike at the Lakers’ team hotel, forcing the team to cross the picket line to board the bus to the Target Center. … Cris Carter, former Raptors coach Butch Carter and Kirby Puckett were among Minnesota sports luminaries in attendance.

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