Tuesday , Jun , 01 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Familiar scene: Lakers back to finals for fourth time in five years

Los Angeles, CA (Sports Network) – Shaquille O’Neal scored 25 points and
grabbed 11 rebounds despite playing most of the game in severe foul trouble,
as the Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals with a 96-90 win over the
Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 of their Western Conference finals series at
Staples Center.

Kobe Bryant added 20 points for the Lakers, who won the best-of-seven
set 4-2. Kareem Rush came off the bench to score a playoff career-high 18
points on 6-of-7 shooting from three-point range in the series-clinching win.

“I just wanted to go out there play my game and be aggressive and when the
shots are there, take them,” said Rush. “Tonight they were falling for me.”

Los Angeles will next meet either Detroit or Indiana in the championship
round. The Pistons currently lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-2 and can
wrap it up Tuesday night at home.

The Lakers will be looking to win the NBA title for the fourth time in
the last five years after also winning three straight crowns from 2000-02.

“It’s been a long season and we’ve fought hard through the ups and downs and
we find ourselves back where we want to be and that’s having a chance to win a
fourth title and now we just have to go and get it,” said Bryant.

Los Angeles improved to 9-0 at home in this year’s playoffs and has won 11
straight as the host dating back to the regular season.

Latrell Sprewell had a game-high 27 points and Kevin Garnett chipped in 22
points and 17 boards before fouling out for the Timberwolves, who were playing
in the conference finals for the first time in the franchise’s history.

Minnesota, which fell to 4-8 all-time when facing elimination in the playoffs,
played the final two games of the series without All-Star guard Sam Cassell.
The veteran Cassell was sidelined with back spasms and a hip injury.

“I told our guys after the game I was proud of them,” said Minnesota head
coach Flip Saunders. “We’ve never made excuses through the years through
injuries or whatever. I also told them I thought we had a good series and
it could have been a great series if we would have had one of our other point
guards from a depth standpoint.

“It’s always tough when you lose, especially when you start out eight months
ago and you have goals to get to, but there is only one team that can get
there. I’m proud of what they did and we’ve come a long way from losing seven
straight times. Now that you get a taste of it you just want it that much

Los Angeles trailed 68-67 after three quarters, but quickly scored the first
four points of the fourth, culminated by Rush’s three, to take a three-point
lead. Bryant’s jumper with 9:11 remaining widened the gap to 75-70 and Rush’s
three-pointer with 6:46 left made it 82-74.

Minnesota got within 84-79 on Mark Madsen’s three-point play moments later,
but the Lakers responded with six straight points to make it 90-79. Rush’s
three-pointer, his sixth of the game, keyed the critical run with 3:22

Bryant sealed the win as he made one free throw with 1:50 left to stake the
Lakers to a 93-81 advantage. The Timberwolves got some late baskets in the
final minute to make the final a bit more respectable.

“It was a hard-fought win and we had a lot of character,” said Bryant.

Los Angeles made up for poor free-throw shooting by making 9-of-21 from the
three-point line (43 percent). The Timberwolves, on the other hand, made the
game as close it was due to 24-of-26 shooting from the foul line (93 percent),
despite attempting only four free throws in the second half.

The Lakers broke up a tie game by using an 8-0 surge midway through the first
quarter, keyed by five from Bryant, to claim a 17-9 lead with 4:44 left.

Minnesota scored four straight points to get within four, but Los Angeles then
closed out the period on an 11-4 surge to open up an 11-point advantage.
During the late flurry, Rush hit a pair of three-pointers and O’Neal put in
five points as the Lakers held a 28-17 edge after 12 minutes.

“The two fouls (in the first quarter) made me play a little passive,” said

In the second, the Timberwolves scored the first five points to get within
28-22 and Garnett’s basket with around seven minutes left trimmed the deficit
to three. Los Angeles then responded by reeling off nine of the next 12
points, capped by Gary Payton’s layup, to forge ahead 42-33 with just over
four minutes remaining.

Minnesota, though, battled back courtesy of Los Angeles’ two main weapons
getting in serious foul trouble. Bryant picked up his third foul, while O’Neal
was whistled for his fourth in the waning minutes.

The Timberwolves took advantage of the Lakers’ foul problems as they closed
out the half on a 13-6 surge, including getting six of those points from the
foul line, to pull within 48-46 at the intermission.

“We started that ballgame with tremendous energy,” said Lakers head coach Phil
Jackson, who is 10-0 all-time in conference finals. “We got up the court and
pressed and got ourselves a lead and got ourselves going. We had the energy we
wanted to have in that game, but the bottom kind of fell on us in the second
period. It was an unusual half to say the least.”

O’Neal scored 14 points and Bryant added 10 for the Lakers, who hit 49 percent
of their shots in the first half (18-of-37). Sprewell had 15 and Garnett
contributed 10 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which connected on just
12-of-34 shots (35 percent) in the opening 24 minutes.

“It didn’t affect my game at all,” said O’Neal referring to his first half
foul trouble. “I knew I had to be careful defensively.”

The Timberwolves were able to stay in the game as they made 21-of-22 from the
foul line (96 percent), compared to only 39 percent shooting from the charity
stripe by Los Angeles (7-of-18).

Minnesota started the third quarter in strong fashion as it scored eight of
the first 10 points, capped by Trenton Hassell’s jumper, to grab a 54-50 lead.
The rest of the period was tight, although the Lakers never regained the lead
in the stanza, and the Timberwolves took a 68-67 edge into the final quarter.