Saturday, May 29, 2004

Lakers push to finish series in Minnesota



By Greg Beacham
The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS - The Los Angeles Lakers need just one win in their next three games to advance to the NBA Finals. If recent history is any guide, they'll only need one attempt.

The Lakers have mastered the art of the closeout over the last four postseasons, winning 12 straight games when there's a chance to finish a playoff series.

With a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals, they've got another opportunity in Game 5 Saturday night in Minnesota. Their record in closeout games is impressive, but the Lakers realize it won't mean much to a vociferous Target Center crowd intent on helping to keep the Timberwolves' best season alive.

"It gives us confidence that we're very good at closing teams out," Kobe Bryant said Friday at the Lakers' training complex in El Segundo. "We're very good at executing, cutting teams up when we have to. ... We take a lot of pride in it. This is the position we want to be in."

The Lakers reached this position with consecutive home victories this week, including a 92-85 win in Game 4 Thursday night. The wins weren't easy or particularly dominating, but they showcased a hard-earned postseason determination that the Timberwolves still can't match.

"We're in a hole, and we've got to bounce back," swingman Wally Szczerbiak said Friday after a film session.

Minnesota hopes to conjure the formula it used to handily win Game 2 - 89-71, the largest victory margin in this series.

"We were really aggressive, and we made those little plays that got us over the hump," Szczerbiak said. "Hopefully we can do it again."

Though the Lakers have won seven of their last eight games, they're not so far removed from an 0-2 series deficit in the second round against San Antonio - a series that might have been much different if Derek Fisher hadn't made an improbable jumper as time expired to win Game 5.

So despite their workmanlike domination of the conference finals so far, the Lakers still believe they've got much more work to do before they'll be ready to play for their fourth championship in five years.

"We know nothing has really happened yet that we can gloat about," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "That reputation (as a good closeout team) doesn't mean anything. I don't think it's going to be an easy task at all to win up in Minnesota."

Still, Jackson wants to finish things now.

"It's a very difficult situation that Minnesota is in," he said. "We've got to keep them in a box and keep them thinking about going home."

Only seven teams ever have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, most recently Detroit's victory over Orlando in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year.

After falling behind early in their second straight loss at Staples Center, the Timberwolves didn't seem keen on their chances of pulling off the difficult feat.

"Right now, we're down to a one-game series," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "I know we'll have a very rabid crowd when we get back home ... and our main focus is to find a way to keep extending it."

With Sam Cassell limited to ineffective spot play for most of the series with back spasms and an injured hip, the Timberwolves' offense simply doesn't scare the Lakers. Latrell Sprewell has shot poorly, and the pressure on Kevin Garnett appears to be suffocating the league MVP.

After Game 4, Garnett was morose - but he refused to blame his teammates, who shot just 33 percent in the loss. Still, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have received much more help from their supporting cast.

Fisher and Rick Fox played important roles in Game 4. Fisher sprung free for a handful of open jumpers while scoring 15 points, and Fox played his usual tough defense on Szczerbiak and Sprewell.

"We've got a lot of superstars that are playing, but it still has been a series where the role players have decided the outcome of a lot of games," Saunders said.

Fox has re-emerged in the Lakers' rotation after falling out of it because of injuries and matchups earlier in the postseason. His hard-nosed play could come in handy if there's another rough game in Minnesota similar to Game 2, which featured seven technical fouls and Karl Malone's ejection for a flagrant foul in the final minutes.

"It's a lot easier to be brave in your backyard, where you're comfortable," Fox said. "That's when you have that bravado. We found ourselves letting them get a little full of themselves (in Game 2)."

Garnett is ready to play the whole game.

"I'll go all 48, 54, 52, 56, 65 - whatever it may be," he said. "This is it. It's no tomorrow."

HORNETS NAME SCOTT: New Orleans introduced Byron Scott as the team's new head coach Friday, with team owner George Shinn saying he fulfilled his goal to hire a "proven winner."

Scott was fired by the New Jersey Nets in January after leading the team to two straight appearances in the NBA Finals. He replaces Tim Floyd, who was fired three weeks ago after the Hornets were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in his only season as coach.

"I was fired after going to two championship series, but I'll tell you this, Mr. Shinn and I talked. ... He told me how much he was committed to me," said Scott, New Orleans' third coach in three seasons.

He takes over a team in transition: The Hornets will switch to the Western Conference next season.

Scott, 44, said he will build his offense around Baron Davis, whom he called "the best young point guard in the league."

"We have to surround (Davis) with players who can get up and down the floor," Scott said.

Under Scott, the Nets lost to the Lakers in the 2002 Finals and to San Antonio in last season's Finals. He had a 149-139 record in 3 1/2 seasons before he was fired from the only head coaching job he has held.

NBA playoffs

CONFERENCE FINALS

(Best-of-7 series)

Wednesday

Detroit 85, Indiana 78; Pistons lead series 2-1

Thursday

Lakers 92, Minnesota 85;

Lakers lead series 3-1

Friday

Indiana 83, Detroit 68; series tied 2-2

Today

Lakers at Minnesota; 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

Detroit at Indiana, 8 p.m.

Monday

Minnesota at Lakers, 9 p.m., if necessary




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