Everything about their season has been melodramatic and difficult and tense all season, so anything else would have been completely out of character. The beautiful and the fabulous arrived looking for the Lakers to clinch the Western Conference title with something easy and stylish, but got 45 terribly nervous minutes. Minnesota turned a 13-point deficit into a four-point lead in the third quarter. Shaq and Kobe were deep in foul trouble, and Game 7 back in Minneapolis was starting to look inevitable.
But nothing stirs the Lakers like a good push, if anything stirs them at all. They got less than they're accustomed to from their two megastars, but got big production from Kareem Rush and timely shooting from somebody named Slava Medvedenko, and battled like a starless, blue-collar team to a 96-90 Game 5 victory at Staples Center.
It was exactly the scenario their coach, Phil Jackson, feared before Game 5, that the Lakers would come back expecting to conquer Minnesota but be greeted instead by something bizarre. And it nearly did, until Minnesota withered in the final three minutes while the Lakers exhibited the poise of a champion.
There was absolutely nothing that happened the first quarter of Game 6 that even remotely hinted of the drama that would follow. The Lakers led by 11 points, 28-17, and had held Minnesota to 35 percent shooting. Again, Sam Cassell could not play because of injuries to his back and hip. Wally Szczerbiak failed to score, as did Fred Hoiberg. And all Kevin Garnett had at the end of those first 12 minutes was one free throw, on a technical foul against Gary Payton.
The Timberwolves are one of those teams that plays with so much energy at home, as was the case in Game 2, when they evened the series, and Game 5, when they extended it. But they struggle to summon anywhere close to that kind of energy on the road. And it didn't figure the Lakers would do anything to allow the Wolves to feel good about themselves given what was at stake.
On the very first possession of the game, all five Lakers touched the ball and Kobe Bryant wound up throwing it down on the head of Minnesota's Michael Olowokandi. And it wasn't just some isolated moment of camaraderie. The Lakers scored 10 baskets in the first quarter and recorded an assist on each and every one of them. Even allowing for some home court generosity, the Lakers were passing it around pretty good.
Shaq gave them the lead at 10-9, and before the Wolves knew what had hit them it was 16-9, then 21-13, then 28-15.
Then it all changed, not in an instant, but very gradually, almost imperceptibly. Garnett started to hit jumpers. Szczerbiak hit a couple of baskets, including a three-pointer. Shaq picked up a couple of quick fouls. Kobe went to the bench after picking up a third foul. And with two minutes left in the half, the Timberwolves had climbed to 45-42 on free throws that resulted from Shaq's third foul. It didn't seem like an overly big deal at the time because Rush, subbing for Kobe, hit a three-pointer to push the lead back to six.
Then, trouble. With less than a minute remaining in the half, Shaq for some bizarre reason stepped out along the baseline to try to block Latrell Sprewell's path to the basket and was called for his fourth foul of the half. The fretting inside Staples Center was audible. And the Timberwolves, who'd done nothing particularly spectacular, were down 48-46. And that deficit didn't last long.
Sensing they had gotten under the Lakers' skin at the very least, the Wolves came out the aggressors and just started letting fly in the kind of helter-skelter scramble game they used to win Game 5. Sprewell, Trenton Hassell and Garnett all scored to put Minnesota ahead 64-60, then 68-64. Their lead should have been larger but the Timberwolves committed a couple of silly turnovers that led to easy Lakers baskets and stopped them from sulking.
Even so, even with the game tied on the first possession of the fourth quarter because Shaq managed to actually make a foul shot, Phil Jackson was searching for something or someone to ignite the team. In this case, Rush scored 18 points, first in Kobe's place, and then playing alongside him through the critical early minutes of the fourth quarter.
By this time, Shaq had committed at least two fouls the referees were simply unwilling to call, including one instance where he threw Hassell to the floor with a two-hand shove. Shaq could have picked up Garnett and body slammed him and the zebras would have swallowed their whistles after Shaq picked up his fifth with nine minutes to play.
From there, the tension only grew increasingly unbearable. With 7:48 left, when after Karl Malone was called for fouling Garnett -- all Malone did was grab Garnett in full view, in open court with both hands -- not only did Malone draw a technical for complaining, but Kobe did as well.
But just as it appeared the Lakers were losing their cool, Kobe settled them with a basket for a lead of 79-74. What Minnesota needed was for Szczerbiak to make a couple of wide-open jump shots, three-pointers, the thing he is paid handsomely to do. But he couldn't. He bricked both, wasn't close on either. What should have been a one-point Minnesota lead was left a five-point deficit.
What got Minnesota back in the game was timely shooting, and what eliminated them, ultimately, was the inability to get anybody to make a shot with the game on the line. Whether or not the threat made the Lakers learn their lesson is something they and we will get to find out beginning Sunday, against either Detroit or Indiana in the NBA Finals.