Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Just four games into these Western Conference finals, the Minnesota Timberwolves are still looking for ways to stop Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. And now they're nearly out of chances.
Bryant had a game-high 31 points -- 18 coming in the decisive third quarter -- as the Lakers powered to a 92-85 Game 4 victory and a 3-1 series lead. During his run, he hit everything from three-pointers to floaters in the lane, plus one jaw-dropping reverse layup that is destined for Bryant's growing personal highlight reel.
His performance came on another day of flying from the Los Angeles area in the early morning hours for a court appearance in Eagle, Colo., where he is facing felony sexual assault charges, and returning to Staples Center about an hour before tip-off. He has played some of his best basketball under these circumstances and Thursday night was no exception.
"He has the inner strength of a Magic or a Jordan or a Bird," said O'Neal (19 points, 19 rebounds) of Bryant. "He's obviously going through a lot . . . He's a fabulous player."
Bryant put his stamp on the game in the third quarter. In addition to his hot shooting, he found open teammates, grabbed big rebounds and capped off the period by winning a jump ball from Minnesota's 6-foot-11 league most valuable player, Kevin Garnett. Bryant is 6-6.
"I just read it," said Bryant, explaining his spectacular play in the second half. "Second half, I sensed the momentum. Then I feel like it's time to go in for the kill, and that's what I do."
Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders had only praise for Bryant.
"He's probably the most dynamic player that's playing the game right now," he said.
It was Bryant's last court date scheduled during this season, and for Los Angeles Coach Phil Jackson, its passing was something of a relief.
"We're glad," said Jackson, "but the ordeal's not over for Kobe. He still has some strenuous times to go through. For our sake, for this basketball team, it's good."
In addition to Bryant and O'Neal, the Lakers got scoring help from Derek Fisher (15 points as a reserve, many of them coming at critical moments) and Karl Malone (12 points and 11 rebounds). Malone was also crucial guarding Garnett.
Garnett had 28 points and 13 rebounds and was one assist shy of a triple-double, but in the face of the Lakers' relentless offensive weapons, his effort simply wasn't enough.
"I'm really at a loss for words right now," said Garnett. "You cannot be down 3-1 to the Lakers. . . . In my book, there's no tomorrow."
Timberwolves sixth man Wally Szczerbiak had 19 points, and Latrell Sprewell ended the night with a disappointing 12. Sam Cassell, suffering from back spasms, did not play in the first half and played only a few minutes in the second, finishing with three points.
Garnett settled into a rhythm to start the second period, scoring Minnesota's first six points, and following a three-point play by Szczerbiak, the Timberwolves had a 35-30 advantage with 8 minutes 16 seconds to go in the half. Suddenly, O'Neal -- double-teamed whenever he touched the ball -- was unable to score.
Fortunately for Los Angeles, his teammates were. Fisher made two open jumpers, and at 6:10, with the Lakers trailing 35-34, Minnesota was forced to call timeout. The Timberwolves' next possession proved fruitless, and on the ensuing trip down the floor, Los Angeles took its first lead on a tomahawk dunk by Devean George. With 3:01 remaining in the period, Bryant hit a 27-foot jumper, capping a 13-2 Lakers run that gave Los Angeles a 43-37 lead.
Up just 45-40 at halftime and 56-54 midway through the third, the Lakers then turned again to Bryant. After hitting a pair of free throws and a three pointer, the guard drove baseline, took off from one side of the basket and tossed in a spectacular reverse layup over the outstretched arm of Garnett.
It was the highlight of a 13-4 Los Angeles run -- 11 of the points belonged to Bryant -- and with 2:44 left in the period, the Lakers were up 69-58.
Los Angeles maintained its lead over most of the fourth quarter, but Minnesota staged a late rally, and with six minutes remaining, drew to 83-75 after a free throw by Szczerbiak. But Fisher hit a 22-foot jumper, and after Bryant hit a pair of free throws, Los Angeles was again ahead by double digits.