Lakers 96, Timberwolves 90
On a team stacked with superstars, it was unheralded role player Kareem Rush who put the Los Angeles Lakers in position to win their fourth NBA championship in five years. The second-year guard with the sweet shot made six three-pointers -- three in the crucial fourth quarter -- to propel the Lakers to the Western Conference championship with a 96-90 victory over the resilient Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night at Staples Center.
By winning the best-of-seven series 4-2, the Lakers advanced the NBA Finals, in which they will face the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, which Detroit leads 3-2 heading into Tuesday's game at Auburn Hills, Mich. Los Angeles avoided having to go back to Minnesota for a seventh game by pouring it on in the fourth quarter after having to fight tooth-and-nail to avoid losing its first postseason home game this year.
And it was Rush (18 points) who was the catalyst. He gave the Lakers the lead for good at 71-68 with 10 minutes 33 seconds left. His second three-pointer of the quarter extended the lead to 82-74 and his crowning three-pointer made the score 89-79.
"I just stay ready," said Rush, who started 15 regular season games, mainly in place of Kobe Bryant, who was either injured or unavailable because he had to attend court proceedings on charges of sexual assault in Colorado. "After I hit my first one, I knew it was going to be a good night and they kept going in for me. I just stay aggressive. Guys were looking for me, shots were there."
As has happened in so many critical postseason games in the NBA, an unexpected hero rises at the most opportune time to seal his team's fortune -- John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Sam Cassell, to name a few. And now there's Rush who, with his team's first-half momentum stalled and a 13-point lead turned into a four-point deficit in the third period, made the shots that will gave him his 15 minutes of fame in a city that's big on glory.
"He played the game of his career. We knew a lot about him as a shooter that not too many other people know about that ability he has," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "We had faith in him and trust that he can make those shots, so we encourage those guys to get the ball to him."
With center Shaquille O'Neal (25 points) struggling from the foul line and Kobe Bryant (20 points) serving more as a facilitator, the Lakers needed one of their ancillary players to step up and thwart the constant attack of Minnesota's Kevin Garnett (22 points, 17 rebounds) and Latrell Sprewell (27 points).
The tandem, which had to make up for the loss of point guard Cassell, who sat out his second straight game because of an injured back and hip, put forth memorable performances in the final game of a season that finally saw the franchise advance past the first round of the playoffs.
Behind Garnett and Sprewell, the Timberwolves broke through in the third quarter, rallying Minnesota to a four-point lead that was trimmed to 68-67 heading into the fourth.
"I got a taste of the Western Conference finals," Garnett said. "It doesn't mean anything if you don't win it all. I'm a person who tries to grab some kind of positive out of all the negatives. This is a nice foundation for the future."
The first half ended with the sellout crowd feverishly booing referees Dick Bavetta, Eddie F. Rush and Ken Mauer, as O'Neal's second-half availability -- and effectiveness -- was in question because of foul trouble. Moreover, the Lakers' 13-point lead had been cut to 48-46. The karma in the arena was so bad that WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie opened a halftime speech to encourage fans to take interest in the Los Angeles Sparks by ripping the officiating over the public address system.
Indeed, the Lakers rarely were the recipients of favorable calls away from the basket, including the questionable brush call on O'Neal on a drive by Sprewell that landed him on the bench with one minute remaining in the half. However, Jackson's decision to leave O'Neal in the game after he picked up his third foul with 2:11 remaining in the second quarter -- especially with the way the game was being called -- was questionable as well.
"We thought that we needed the presence of Shaquille out there to discourage them from taking the ball to the basket," Jackson said. "Obviously it did not work. We then had to suffer the consequences."
O'Neal was greatly responsible for the game being as close as it was. With Minnesota resorting to the Hack-A-Shaq strategy, O'Neal had every opportunity to give his Lakers breathing room, but the 49 percent free throw shooter missed 13 of 20 foul shots in the game. Minnesota converted 24 of 26 from the line, with Sprewell sinking all 11 of his attempts.
The Timberwolves' steady climb back into contention came after Bryant opened the game with a haymaker of a slashing dunk that had the flash impact of a Mike Tyson overhand right. The crowd jumped to its feet, Minnesota rocked back on its heels and the Lakers puffed out their chests.
The Timberwolves fought back like a team on life support, though, and tied the score at nine before things unraveled. In the midst of an 8-0 run by the Lakers, Garnett picked up his second foul and was forced to the bench. Los Angeles pushed its lead to 13 before closing the period with a 28-17 advantage. The early momentum seemed like it would be enough to steamroll the Timberwolves, especially since Garnett was one foul away from taking another prolonged breather, but again Minnesota responded.
"The role players determined who won the game. We did a god job on Shaq and Kobe, but no question Kareem Rush nailed some big shots. That turned the game," Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders said.
"I'm proud of what they did. We've come a long way from losing seven straight times to now to get a taste of it. It was our 100th game tonight. Every time we stepped on the floor we've been competitive. Like I said before, you get a little taste of this you get a little bit hungrier."