-- Twelve hours after the biggest victory in franchise history, Minnesota arrived at Thursday's practice faced with the unenviable task of trying to stop the hottest team in the NBA. So maybe it's a good thing the Timberwolves didn't have much time to sleep, because the Los Angeles Lakers present them with their fair share of nightmares.
Minnesota's 83-80 victory over the Sacramento Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals Wednesday night put the team in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history after seven straight first-round playoff losses. But the Lakers were the last team to send Minnesota home for the summer, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to beat the Timberwolves in six last year.
Los Angeles, fresh off four straight victories over the San Antonio Spurs, hasn't played a game in six days. Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, scheduled for Target Center Friday, will be Minnesota's third game since Sunday and sixth in the last 12 days.
"It's reality. We have no choice but to forget about the Kings and move on," said forward Kevin Garnett, who scored 32 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked five shots in Minnesota's Game 7 win. "Everybody would like to rest, but we don't have that opportunity."
Point guard Sam Cassell, who has been suffering from back spasms, played Wednesday night's game with an electronic stimulator unit on his back. Every time the guard came to the bench, he was plugged in to the device. Thursday he sat out much of practice.
"He did a little bit. Not too much. He watched film, dummied some stuff, went through defensive rotations. That was pretty much it," Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders said.
If anybody could use a few days off, it's Cassell. But listening to him on Thursday, it's apparent he'd rather plug in again than sit down.
"We can use the excuse that we're tired and lay down. But we're not going to lay down," Cassell said. "The first game is the game you want to win."
Minnesota took three of four from the Lakers in the regular season, but Los Angeles was without Shaquille O'Neal in the first meeting, was missing Kobe Bryant in the second, and didn't have Karl Malone for either of the first two games. On March 26, the Lakers posted a 90-73 win in Los Angeles.
Of the Lakers' four future Hall of Famers, it might be O'Neal who presents the biggest challenge for Minnesota. The Timberwolves plan to rotate centers Michael Olowokandi and Ervin Johnson with forwards Mark Madsen and Gary Trent on O'Neal, but it's foolish to think any combination of the four will stop him.
"I learned one thing in three years against Shaq: He's unstoppable," said Madsen, who signed with Minnesota last summer after starting his career with the Lakers. "You can only hope to slow him down, and that's going to require two, three, sometimes four defenders. We're going to have our hands full."
Despite the fact that they're the top seed in the West, the Timberwolves aren't the trendy pick to win the series -- not when they're facing a hot Lakers team on short rest. But Cassell, who was on a Rockets team that won the 1995 NBA title as a sixth seed, isn't fazed by the odds.
"We understand people aren't giving us a chance, but that's what we like," he said. "They didn't give us a chance to get the No. 1 seed in the West, either. I picked up the Sporting News before the season, and they picked us fifth or sixth [in the conference]. I've been an underdog before and we won a championship, so it doesn't matter."
Notes: Madsen, who played for Mike Montgomery at Stanford, said he didn't expect to hear that Montgomery will likely take the Golden State Warriors head coach position.
"I was surprised, in a sense, at the timing of it, but great opportunities have been coming to Mike Montgomery for a long time," he said. "I spoke to Mike this morning. He's very excited. He's not going to have to move from his home in Menlo Park. I hope the traffic isn't too bad."