Timberwolves 83, Kings 80

-- With his team's playoff future, his reputation and his worthiness as the league's most valuable player all in question, Kevin Garnett delivered a fourth quarter that was eight years in the making.

Garnett scored 14 points in the final quarter and finished with 32 points and 21 rebounds in 46 minutes as the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Sacramento Kings, 83-80, in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals Wednesday night before 19,944 at the Target Center.

The Timberwolves will play the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, with Game 1 scheduled for Friday night in Minneapolis.

Garnett drew flak on Monday when he said he was "ready for war" in Game 7. He apologized for the remark on Tuesday, but stood by the sentiment of his comment on Wednesday.

"I felt like I had to be an example to everybody. I didn't want to drive home and wonder if I could have done more," he said. "My analogy was inappropriate, but it described how I felt. I had to let it all hang out . . . Sometimes you have to be passive, but tonight was not that time."

Minnesota, which beat the Denver Nuggets in five games in the first round after seven straight opening-round exits, earned its first trip to the conference finals.

The Kings pulled within one on Doug Christie's three-pointer with 17 seconds left, but Sam Cassell made two free throws to secure a three-point lead for Minnesota. Chris Webber's three-point attempt rattled in and out at the buzzer and, seconds later, Garnett leaped onto the scorer's table. He later grabbed a court microphone to exhort the crowd.

"[TNT analyst] Steve Kerr made a comment that I was a little complacent with the win," Garnett said. "Steve Kerr has never been out of the first round seven straight times. This was my moment to enjoy it with the fans, with the city, and I wasn't going to let anything come between that."

Garnett, who celebrated his 28th birthday Wednesday, outscored the Kings 11-6 during a six-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. The run was highlighted by an off-balance three-pointer with two seconds left on the shot clock and 3 minutes 39 seconds left in the game.

"Seven games often define who you are," Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders said. "He carried us down the stretch."

In the game's first 4:20, Minnesota and Sacramento combined for just six points while committing five turnovers. But the Timberwolves hit eight of their next 14 shots and led 22-16 at the end of the first quarter.

Minnesota ran its lead to 12 early in the second quarter on a pair of jumpers by Wally Szczerbiak. The forward, who sat out the last six games with fractures in his back, scored eight straight points for Minnesota in the second quarter.

The Kings were without Anthony Peeler, who would have been defending Szczerbiak had he not been suspended by the league for throwing an elbow at Garnett in Game 6.

"Szczerbiak's a good player, but he wouldn't have been able to do that against AP," Webber said.

The Timberwolves led 41-31 at halftime, thanks to eight Kings turnovers. Sacramento shot better from three-point range (37.5 percent) than it did from the free-throw line (36.4 percent) in the first half.

In the third quarter, the Kings took their first lead of the game after a 10-0 run during which Minnesota turned the ball over four times in six trips down the court. After reserve forward Mark Madsen fumbled a pass out of bounds underneath the basket, Brad Miller's jumper cut Minnesota's lead to one. Rodney Buford stole another bad pass from Latrell Sprewell, and Webber connected from 22 feet and gave Sacramento a 58-57 lead with 1:55 left in the quarter. But Cassell sank a three-pointer off a fast break with 33 seconds left to put Minnesota back in front at the end of the period, 62-60.

Christie led Sacramento with 21 points. Cassell, who has been plagued by back spasms, added 23 points and hit 10 of 11 free throws.

Kevin Garnett, on 28th birthday, has plenty to shout about after scoring 32 points and grabbing 21 rebounds to lead Timberwolves to first conference finals. Kings' Doug Christie is down after Chris Webber's three-pointer rattled in and out at the buzzer. Kevin Garnett, right, has a word with Kings' Chris Webber after game. "He carried us down the stretch," Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders said of Garnett.