Derek Fisher said it was virtually impossible to enjoy this season when it took so much simply to endure it. "Everybody thought that we'd be sitting here . . . but not get here the way we've gotten here," he said.

An hour had passed since the Lakers had won a Game 6 struggle with Minnesota to advance to the NBA Finals. And for a team that already has collected three championships and from the time it was assembled was favored to win the Western Conference, the Lakers were awfully proud. "This," Fisher said, "has been hard. This team has persevered through a lot of things this season, off and on the court. And you appreciate things more when they're hard-earned. There's almost a love for things that don't come easy, when you work for something really hard."

Monday night's clinching victory was emblematic of the entire season. Shaquille O'Neal was called for four fouls in the first half and Kobe Bryant three. The Timberwolves led after three quarters, Kevin Garnett was in a jump-shooting groove, the Staples Center crowd was in an uncharacteristic frenzy of booing and fretting. Yet, the Lakers persevered just as Fisher suggested, this time by getting a lights-out shooting performance from reserve guard Kareem Rush. In the immediate aftermath of the victory, Fisher said, "My answer to every question is, 'Kareem Rush.' "

But of course there were more pressing questions, even though five days remain before the start of the NBA Finals.

For starters, why in the world did Karl Malone duck out on the postgame ceremony celebrating winning the West?

"Because I just felt I hadn't done enough yet," he said. "I haven't done the thing I came here to help this team do, which is win a championship. With apologies to the Lakers and the NBA and anybody else who might be wondering about why I did what I did . . . I just thought it was best to leave. As I was standing there, I thought, 'This really is nice, but I shouldn't be here.' "

Of course, Malone has already earned his keep here. He's not tagging along for the ride; he guarded Tim Duncan for six games in the second round, then Garnett for six more games in the conference finals. They are the two best forwards in basketball, period. And here's Malone, 40 years old, guarding them with very little help. During this period, when some of us have questioned why the Lakers are great more frequently, the two players above reproach, who don't have to answer that question, are Malone and Fisher. On a team with great players and great role players, Malone and Fisher might be made of the toughest stuff. They were the last two players to leave the locker room after the clincher, in part because both had knee injuries they should not have played on. Fisher has a ligament that is partially torn.

Each accepted back around the all-star break that this season was going to test everybody's resolve. So, neither was surprised the Timberwolves led going into the fourth quarter. Neither was surprised Shaq picked up a fifth foul and Phil Jackson had to go to Rush and Slava Medvedenko deep into the fourth quarter.

"It had to be hard tonight," Malone said. "The way our season has been, it had to be tough. And you know what? I don't want it easy. I don't know if things that mean that much to you are supposed to come easy."

I've been one of those people who has wanted to see the Lakers be great more often, if for no other reason that they are the only team in the NBA at present capable of true greatness. And when Fisher began talking about how high the three-peat Lakers teams (2000, 2001, 2002) had raised the bar of expectations, I asked if it is fair to ask them not just to win, but to be great.

"I think it's fair, yes," he said. "It's like when there's a kid in school who earns A's the entire semester, then gets to the final exam and gets a C, it's fair for the teacher to wonder why he didn't do better. I think people have a right to ask, 'Why didn't you do what you can do, especially if you are physically able to do it.' "

Back in late October, when the Lakers were about to open the season with Shaq, Kobe, Malone and Gary Payton and folks were talking about them winning 70 to 75 games in the regular season, Fisher cautioned people. "I know it looked like life was going to be great for us," he said. "But we had things to work through, on and off the court, and we got to a point where we certainly did not look like a championship team.

"Our former assistant, Bill Bertka, said because we raised the bar so high when we lost a game or two or won but didn't play as well as we would like to have played, 'Well, the Lousy Lakers won another game.' I think the best thing we did was just kept coming to work," Fisher added. "And I think that as great a job as Hubie Brown did during the regular season to help make Memphis a contender, what Phil [Jackson] did was amazing. He allowed this team to be who it is. And he allowed players to work through various things on and off the court."

Some 90 minutes after the game, Fisher and Malone and two reporters were the only people left in the locker room. Both players moved gingerly on injured knees. Malone should have had his knee drained around noon but didn't think he'd have enough recovery time to make tip-off . . . so he played with it puffed up. Fisher probably shouldn't have played, period. Malone, because of age, stature, career achievement and willingness to mentor, is big brother to any NBA player in need of a pat on the back or kick in the rump, even young stars if they'll listen to him. But as they walked out of the room, it was Fisher who controlled a wonderful moment. He took off the championship ring he wears and held it up for Malone to see, waited for Malone to extend his hand, then put it on Malone's pinkie.

Malone started at the ring for maybe 10 seconds, smiled at Fisher, and said, "I'd better put this back."

Fisher slid it back on his finger and said, "Four more wins, and you can have one of these."

As much as anyone in that locker room, maybe more, Malone and Fisher are prepared to endure seven more difficult, tense, demanding games to earn a fourth championship ring for Fisher, and a first for Malone.

Forward Karl Malone embraces Gary Payton, another veteran looking for his first NBA title, after the Lakers

eliminated the Timberwolves in Game 6 of West finals.