- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

LOS ANGELES — Not so fast, folks. These Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t eliminated from the Western Conference finals Saturday, and they believe that won’t happen tonight, either.

After staving off elimination in Game5 at home — and ending Los Angeles’ streak of 12 consecutive playoff victories in closeout games — the Timberwolves no longer feel as if they are playing against insurmountable odds in their attempt to keep the Lakers from making their fourth trip to the NBA Finals in five seasons.

“The last thing we said when we left the locker room to our guys is that we as coaches have convinced you guys that you can beat L.A. if you play the right way ‘cause you can,” Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said after the Timberwolves reduced the Lakers’ lead to 3-2.

After Saunders delivered that pregame advice, the Timberwolves responded with a 98-96 victory at Target Center in a game that was not nearly as close as the score indicated. Minnesota, behind 30 points and 19 rebounds from league MVP Kevin Garnett, led by as much as 16 points in the fourth quarter.

Now, even though the Timberwolves will be without the services of Sam Cassell (back, hip), they feel winning at Los Angeles tonight and forcing a Game7 back in Minnesota on Wednesday is within their reach.

“We don’t consider this thing over,” Garnett said. “We know we’re a good team; we know we can beat this team. We have a lot of confidence. The biggest question mark now is how do we carry this over to L.A.”

Just seven teams in playoff history have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. And even though they have moved a step closer to accomplishing the feat, the Timberwolves know the task is still daunting: Los Angeles has won all eight of its playoff games at Staples Center this season.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to win except the guys in that locker room,” Saunders said. “Now we’ve got to get another one. One at a time. That’s the way you have to look at it. Now we have to transfer that energy to the road.”

Meanwhile, center Shaquille O’Neal, recently praised for the gracious manner in which he has accepted getting fewer shots and doing more of the dirty work, left Target Center in a huff after openly complaining that the 11 shots he took in Game5 weren’t enough.

O’Neal didn’t address the media yesterday. However, his teammates and coach Phil Jackson don’t think O’Neal’s attitude will be a problem when the Lakers try to put the Timberwolves away at Staples Center.

“I don’t mess with whatever his anger is,” Jackson said. “If he is angry, usually it works out to be a favorable aspect for his game. It animates him. It activates him.”

Jackson, on the other hand, chided Kobe Bryant yesterday for taking a few ill-advised shots that took the Lakers out of their rhythm in Saturday’s loss. Bryant agreed Los Angeles can’t afford to relax.

“The playoffs are dangerous; momentum changes from game to game,” Bryant said. “A team can have the upper hand one game, drop a game, and all of a sudden the momentum shifts. That’s why it’s imperative for us to try to deliver the knockout blow whenever you can.

“I think their confidence comes from being one game away from getting their homecourt advantage that they worked so hard for. Our attitude is to win the game tomorrow, not to think about a Game7 or the finals. This team isn’t going to give us anything. If we win it we’re going to have to take it.”

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