Phil Jackson could see it coming, but no amount of chiding could change his worst-case scenario. He screamed at his players at the end of three quarters that they would be humiliated if they didn't hustle, and that Minnesota can beat stagnant talent every time.
Well, no two-point loss qualifies as a humiliation. But given an inch, Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell sent the Western Conference finals back to Los Angeles with as good a one-two combination as we've seen in the playoffs, Shaq and Kobe included.
Garnett's 30-point, 19-rebound performance has become almost the norm in these playoffs, though he added a twist in Game 5 by playing all five positions on both offense and defense. And Sprewell had a flashback not just to New York, but all the way back to his youthful days at Golden State. His 28 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals were the perfect complement to Garnett's dominance in Minnesota's 98-96 thriller over the Lakers, which cut L.A.'s series lead to 3-2.
"KG was huge," Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders said. "Spree was huge. We live for another day. What you do is you put a little bit of pressure on L.A."
And that's exactly what Jackson did not want, though he feared it would play out just this way.
An hour before Game 5, with a chance to put Minnesota in the rear view mirror, Jackson left his team's locker room more than slightly annoyed. Jackson loves to play mind-games with his players through the media, but it was too close to tip-off to make that tactic pay off. So presumably, Jackson really and truly didn't like what he saw of his Lakers.
"When I left the locker room," he told a handful of reporters, "they were in a giddy mood and I don't like that. I told them to get their game faces on, to get ready for the game." Asked how many times he has had to do that this season, Jackson said, "It may be the first time I said it this year."
The pregame laughter from the Lakers' lockers apparently penetrated the coach's space here in Target Center. What was so funny? Jackson said it might have been as trivial as one of 'em "passing gas. Whatever struck them as funny seemed a little bit over the top."
Shaq was in a rather surly mood afterward, mostly because he got only 11 shots in the game, even though the offense was clearly most effective when it ran through him. Bryant, who missed 11 of his 19 shots, said laughter had nothing to do with the team's mood once the game began. "If you know this team," he said afterward, "Shaq keeps the entire locker room like that. He did it all season. That's just how we are. Shaquille's a goofball, man."
Kobe admitted that the Lakers, early on, "had a chance to collapse them," but quickly added, "It wasn't for lack of effort. If I sat here and said that it would be an injustice to Minnesota and how hard they played. We wanted to close this thing out. Give credit to Minnesota."
It's one thing to come from a sportswriter, this notion that the Lakers simply cannot be serious every night about their mission; it's another to come from Jackson, who has won nine championships as a coach, two more as a player. However great Kobe and Shaq are, it's doubtful either will come within shouting distance of Jackson's ring total. Dr. Zen was looking to close out this series before something freakish happened. He was looking to get Shaq and Kobe some rest. While most of us have concentrated on the Lakers winning a dozen consecutive "close-out" games, undoubtedly Jackson recalls a Western Conference finals against Portland in 2000 when the Lakers led 3-1, and trailed by 17 points a minute into the fourth quarter of Game 7 before pulling out the game and the series.
Some teams, down 3-1, are ready for summer vacation. "I think this Minnesota team still believes it can win," Jackson said. "This game here tonight is going to be very difficult for us to win."
Jackson said he told them there is an "inner determination" within teams that amounts to a choice they make before big games, that they are usually won or lost "before the actual game, at shoot-around or even the practice the day before."
The Lakers played right out of the box as if Jackson was dead wrong with his diagnosis. Either that or they got his pregame message about putting on their game faces. They led 10-5, 16-8, 20-10, and ultimately 21-14 after the first 12 minutes of the game. And actually, it was the Timberwolves who looked ready to be knocked out with one good blow.
The Lakers, however, couldn't land it. While they goofed around and let Minnesota stay close, Saunders figured out (much like Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle did against Detroit on Friday night) that a small, quick lineup would be better than a big one. That meant he could bench 7-footer Michael Olowokandi, who has to be the sorriest No. 1 overall pick in NBA history. There's nothing whatsoever redeeming about his game, and Minnesota was better off with 6-9 former Laker Mark Madsen in the lineup battling Shaq.
There's something about Madsen's spastic approach that just ignites both his teammates and the fans here. Suddenly, Garnett began playing the way he did in Game 7 against Sacramento and Sprewell began playing the way he did in 1999 when the Knicks, without Patrick Ewing, blasted into the NBA Finals.
With Sam Cassell out with his injured back and hip, Minnesota needed somebody to break down the Lakers' defense with dribble penetration. Sprewell did just that, attacking the rim, not only giving himself scoring chances but creating shooting space for Garnett, Fred Hoiberg and Wally Szczerbiak.
After trailing 40-33, with Sprewell in attack mode, Minnesota scored the next 17 points to take a 50-40 lead. The Lakers did not look giddy. Malone and Shaq got them within five a couple of times, and it's always possible to envision the Lakers making a triumphant comeback. But Garnett and Sprewell simply were not going out at home to a team they didn't think took them to be a serious threat with a 3-1 lead. Garnett, who had 25 points and 15 rebounds through three quarters, refused to come out of the game for a rest until 7:43 remained and his team was ahead, 80-70. If Garnett was concerned nobody could carry the team like he could for a couple of minutes, he was dead wrong in this instance. Sprewell scored 11 straight points, the final two putting the Timberwolves ahead, 86-70, with six minutes to play.
The Lakers played hard enough late to make the game dramatic, but the late burst probably annoyed Jackson even more. "That's the kind of scenario we envisioned before the ballgame," he said referring to the coaching staff.
The Timberwolves have between now and Monday when Game 6 tips off to figure out how to keep the Lakers giddy just one more time in the series.