MINNEAPOLIS — After dabbling in this playoff series for more than a week, for four games that reminded them as often of their championship mortality as their championship potential, the Lakers played every inch of Game 5.
They lost a man and gained a foothold, won a game and gained on the suspicion that they're not done yet, Tuesday night beating the Minnesota Timberwolves, 120-90, at a sold-out Target Center.
The Lakers lead the best-of-seven series, three games to two. They would advance to the Western Conference semifinals with a win Thursday night in Los Angeles or here on Saturday. They would meet the winner of the San Antonio-Phoenix series.
They lead because, after straining through most of the series, everything went right, from Shaquille O'Neal's inside game to Robert Horry's jumpers, from Devean George, who took Rick Fox's place in the lineup, to Brian Shaw, who took George's place off the bench.
Kobe Bryant scored 32 points, two on a startling dunk that stood in beauty and force with only a handful before in his career, and 16 points in a breakaway third quarter. And Derek Fisher, who scored 24 points, made five of seven threes.
Phil Jackson does not get swept away very often, not after nine championships, after countless series that bucked from uncomfortable to easy again. Not in the final days of April, their fourth consecutive title seemingly farther off than their third is behind them.
But, the Lakers, matched game by game and chest to chest by the Timberwolves, appeared to turn the series. They shot 54.2% from the field, they had 13 steals, they blocked seven shots, and they emptied an arena with more than half a quarter to play.
They pushed from baseline to baseline, and outscored the Timberwolves in every quarter, and scored 16 fast-break points, and made Troy Hudson look like Troy Hudson again, and made do with Kevin Garnett, who had 25 points and 16 rebounds.
"It was just one of those nights," Jackson said. "I always tell them we need a break-out game, a game to really establish what kind of team we are. I thought we played ... below the level of our potential at times, and Minnesota's had a lot to do with that, taken us out of our rhythm and put us in a different gear. But, tonight was different.
"That was a team I recognize, moving the ball, limiting their turnovers, establishing a defensive core, finding open men for shots, three-point shooters making their shots. You know, things like that that click for us."
After calling for the ball all weekend, O'Neal had 27 points and 11 rebounds, and afterward said he was satisfied. Bryant rolled his damaged right shoulder for much of the game, and sat back in the early quarters, content to push to the rim and pass to O'Neal, or to Horry on the perimeter. Shaw came off the bench, and hounded Wally Szczerbiak, who had nine points, and filled his 24 minutes with blocks (four), steals (two), assists (three) and rebounds (six).
"You saw us pick them apart on the offensive end," Shaw said.
When the Timberwolves groped for defenses -- the full-court pressure didn't work for the first time in the series, they tried a zone, they doubled O'Neal and Bryant -- Shaw said, "That's kind of a sign of retreat. Once we saw that, we went in for the kill."
From 40-40, the Lakers led, 58-46, on O'Neal's rolling layup, on a pass from Bryant, in the moments before halftime. Often slow to start out of halftime, the Lakers were 17 points ahead two points into the third quarter, 21 ahead four minutes later.
In that period, rocking on the balls of his feet, measuring a defense that had begun to sag, Bryant finished the whole thing.
From the right corner, he faked a shot, went around Garnett and into the chest of Rasho Nesterovic. He drifted under the basket, rose up on the other side and dunked on the head of both Garnett and Nesterovic.
Bryant landed in a heap on the left side of the floor, and cranked his sore shoulder a few times, and everyone in the arena sat down, except for the guys on the Laker bench, who bolted to their feet.
Asked to describe it, Bryant, ever cool, broke into a big smile and said, "Just went around the side."
And, saw rim.
"My teammates were really excited about it," he said.
Shaw, 37 last month, outplayed Szczerbiak baseline to baseline. Flip Saunders had hoped to take advantage of Fox's injury by turning loose Szczerbiak.
Then, just in case this was all too much to bear for Minnesotans, a belligerent Laker fan screamed, "Let's go Shizzle!" at O'Neal from a few rows behind the bench, left the arena with his hands over his head, and pounded his Laker-jerseyed chest at every boo.
With that, Leonardo DiCaprio was gone.
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Best of seven
*--* Game 1 April 20 Lakers 117, at Minnesota 98 Game 2 April 22 at Minnesota 119, Lakers 91 Game 3 April 24 Minnesota 114, at Lakers 110 (OT) Game 4 April 27 at Lakers 102, Minnesota 97 Game 5 April 29 Lakers 120, at Minnesota 90 Game 6 Thursday at Staples Center 7:30 p.m., TNT and FSN Game 7* Saturday at Minnesota Time TBA, TNT or ESPN; Ch. 9
* if necessary