Friday, May 28, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Game 4 of the NBA’s Western Conference finals was probably over when Kobe Bryant, who is greeted by chants of “MVP!” whenever he steps to the free throw line at Staples Center, won a jump ball from reigning MVP Kevin Garnett in the third quarter last night.

By this time late in the period, Bryant, who once again had to make a mad dash from a Colorado courtroom to the game, had crafted a masterpiece of a performance. He packed 18 of his game-high 31 points into a decisive third quarter that gave the Lakers a 92-85 victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

Not that Bryant, who was 9-for-24 from the floor with four assists and eight rebounds, didn’t have some help. Shaquille O’Neal, averaging 17.5 rebounds over the past four games, patrolled the inside this time for 19 rebounds and 19 points.

Karl Malone, who finished with 12 points, also pulled down 11 rebounds as the Lakers dominated the glass 52-41. The Lakers, who can close out the series tomorrow in Minnesota, also got a solid game from reserve guard Derek Fisher, who had 15 points.

Bryant arrived at Staples Center a little over an hour before the game was scheduled to begin and was in the starting lineup at the tip. But while he played 41 spectacular minutes, Minnesota was forced to juggle starting point guard Sam Cassell’s minutes.

Cassell, an All-Star who has been plagued by back spasms off and on in the playoffs, was held out by coach Flip Saunders for the entire first half in favor of Darrick Martin, who scored 15 in Cassell’s stead in the Wolves’ victory in Game 2.

Cassell, who played just one minute in that game, hit his first attempt last night — a 3-pointer in the third quarter — but was only able to play five minutes and never scored again. Martin was of equal inconsequence himself, finishing with just three points.

Garnett finished one assist shy of a triple double, leading the Wolves with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

However, he didn’t get very much help. Latrell Sprewell was the Wolves’ second-highest-scoring starter with just 12 points on 4-for-18 shooting. Starting guard Trenton Hassell, who scored all of his eight points in the first half, was the third highest scoring starter.

Wally Szczerbiak came off the bench to score 19 points for the Timberwolves, who shot just 38 percent from the floor.

The Wolves led 24-23 after one quarter although they made just 40 percent of their field goals compared with the 9-for-18 by the Lakers. The Lakers tightened up even more defensively in the second quarter, when they limited Minnesota to just 35 percent from the floor.

After the Wolves went ahead 35-30 on a pair of free throws by Szczerbiak, the Lakers outscored Minnesota 15-2 over the next seven minutes to lead 45-37 on O’Neal’s turnaround jumper.

The Lakers never trailed again, and the lead stayed in double figures for most of the second half except for a Wolves flurry at the end.

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