Reprinted from yesterday's editions
When Derek Fisher is clicking, the Los Angeles Lakers are nearly impossible to beat in the NBA playoffs. And that's really all there was to the Lakers' 97-88 win Friday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The Minnesota Timberwolves hit plenty of big shots, staying around a lot longer than most figured they could on tired legs, but Fisher simply did his job too well.
The reserve guard, two weeks removed from his now-famous buzzer-beater against San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals, scored 11 points in the final 15 minutes, finishing with 14 points and four three-pointers as the Lakers seized home-court advantage before 19,552 at Target Center.
"That's what we all are here for. It doesn't matter who gets it done," Fisher said. "We're fortunate to have four of the greatest, but it's always been about those other eight guys. It's that role player, the key play from another guy that's always the difference."
Fisher was referring to Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone -- all likely future Hall of Famers -- but it was heroics that once again were crucial.
The Wolves were within two at halftime and got within four with 2 minutes 35 seconds left, but Fisher's final three-pointer with 55 seconds left sealed the win for the Lakers.
O'Neal scored 27 points, including 9 of 11 free throws, and Bryant added 23 for Los Angeles. Latrell Sprewell scored 18 in the second half en route to 23 for Minnesota. Kevin Garnett, fresh off a 32-point, 21-rebound masterpiece against Sacramento in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, scored 16.
"This is definitely the game we wanted," said forward Karl Malone, who guarded Garnett most of the night. "We had five days off, and they were coming off an emotional game. Now we can forget this one."
Garnett shot just twice in the first quarter, but the Wolves led 24-23 after one period, thanks to eight points from backup center Michael Olowokandi. After starter Ervin Johnson got into early foul trouble, Olowokandi took advantage of a gaping hole on the low blocks, collecting two tip-ins and a dunk to go with an 11-footer.
The Lakers opened the second quarter with a 10-4 run and led by six before the Timberwolves closed within two on a Fred Hoiberg three-pointer with 10 seconds left in the half. Garnett had just six points in the first half, with Malone forcing him to play away from the basket and pass up jumpers instead of driving to the hoop.
The rest of the Wolves followed suit. Twelve of Minnesota's 20 second-quarter points came on jumpers longer than 17 feet.
On the other end, O'Neal overwhelmed Minnesota's centers. He was 5 for 7 from the free throw line in the half, and scored 15 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots.
Sprewell and Garnett combined for just 11 points in the first half, but hooked up for that many in the first four minutes of the third. Sprewell scored Minnesota's first seven points, and Garnett followed with the team's next four. Bryant, who had a quiet nine points in the first half, also came alive, shaking Trenton Hassell for three straight jumpers that pushed the Lakers' lead to five.
Los Angeles led by seven before Minnesota went on a 14-7 run, tying the game on a pair of Olowokandi free throws after O'Neal was called for charging with 3:01 left. But Fisher sucked all the life out of the crowd with two threes, and Kareem Rush hit another three-pointer to stretch L.A's lead to nine. The third bomb came just 80 seconds after Minnesota tied the game. Fisher swished another jumper with two seconds left in the third, and just like that, the Lakers were up 11.
"Our philosophy is that we've got to try to make them beat us over the top, and they made some shots that did," Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders said.