Timberwolves 89, Lakers 71
In the first round of last year's playoffs, the Minnesota Timberwolves lost Game 1 on their home floor, only to come back and hand the Los Angeles Lakers a 28-point beating in Game 2. One year and two rounds later, the result -- and effect -- of Game 2 was the same. On Sunday night, Minnesota delivered a resounding notice that it isn't ready to hand the Lakers the Western Conference title yet.
The Timberwolves got 41 points from their reserves and held Shaquille O'Neal to 14 points in an 89-71 win over the Lakers before 19,707 at Target Center in the Western Conference finals Sunday night. The series is tied at one game apiece, with Game 3 scheduled for Tuesday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Lakers' 71 points equaled a franchise-low in the playoffs.
Minnesota's all-star point guard, Sam Cassell, left less than a minute into the game, but backup Darrick Martin posted 15 points and six assists. Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles with 27.
"We talked before the game, and I knew there was a chance [I'd be in pretty early]," said Martin, who was playing for the CBA's Sioux Falls Skyforce before Minnesota signed him on March 31.
O'Neal, who scored 27 points in Game 1, was bumped, shoved and hit all night by Minnesota's three centers. Ervin Johnson, Michael Olowokandi and Oliver Miller forced O'Neal into 4-for-10 shooting. And when he got to the free throw line, the center was his normal self. After a 9-for-11 performance from the line in Game 1, O'Neal was just 6 for 14.
"It was much easier to get him the ball down there [in Game 1]," Bryant said. "Tonight, it was tough to even get him the ball on one bounce with a defender sitting in his lap."
Cassell, who missed the last 13 1/2 minutes of Friday's game and sat out Saturday's practice because of back spasms, started Sunday night but went to the locker room for treatment just 43 seconds later. Gary Payton went by Cassell on a drive to the hoop, and Cassell was whistled for a foul when he reached for the Lakers' point guard. Right after that, he was out of the game.
"Maybe it's my CBA upbringing. You'd lose guys 20 minutes before the game to the NBA, and you'd have to find somebody else to go play," said Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders, who started his coaching career with seven seasons in the CBA. "I don't harp on injuries. We just proceed like they're not there."
Reserve Wally Szczerbiak scored nine points in the first quarter, Latrell Sprewell added nine, and Minnesota finished on a 12-6 run to lead 32-24 at the end of the first. The Timberwolves shot a torrid 65 percent in the quarter and were 8 for 8 from the free throw line.
Minnesota extended its lead to 10 early in the second quarter on a Mark Madsen layup and pushed it to 13. With Karl Malone taking three fouls to the bench and reserves Stanislav Medvedenko and Brian Cook left to defend Kevin Garnett (24 points), the Wolves ripped off a 9-2 run that forced the Lakers to call a timeout with 2 minutes 28 seconds left. Derek Fisher, who scored 14 points as a reserve in Game 1, also found the bench with three first-half fouls. Martin capped a stellar first half by throwing up an off-balance layup at the buzzer that bounced around the rim before falling in.
And even though Minnesota had Cassell for little more than the running time of a car commercial, they still led 51-37 at halftime.
"When Sam's out, everything's simplified. We go to a lot more sets," said Garnett, who grabbed 11 rebounds. "We knew everybody was going to have to take some responsibility.
The Timberwolves led by 18 after Sprewell connected on a three-pointer with 9:38 left in the third, but Bryant, who scored 19 in the first half, scored six straight points and fed Payton for a layup as Los Angeles trimmed the lead to 10.
Los Angeles got the lead down to seven, sandwiching an O'Neal dunk between three-pointers from Kareem Rush and Devean George, but Sprewell found Miller with a terrific jump pass for a dunk, and Garnett hit a three-pointer with four-tenths of a second left in the third to give Minnesota a 68-56 lead.
Three and a half minutes into the fourth quarter, it was evident the Wolves were getting on the Lakers' nerves. O'Neal got into a shoving match with Gary Trent, and both players were given technical fouls. Los Angeles picked up three more technicals in the quarter -- two of them courtesy of nose-to-nose confrontations between Malone and Johnson, and Payton and Szczerbiak.
Finally, Malone was tossed from the game with 2:31 left for flipping his left shoulder into Martin's face on his way through a screen.
The Lakers' final tally in the fourth quarter: 15 points, 4 technicals and 1 ejection.