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Bill Plaschke

Six-Act Drama Felt More Like a Mortality Play

May 02, 2003|Bill Plaschke

And so they ended a walk in the park with a hike through an alley, day becoming night, victory frayed by vulnerability.

Expecting a four-round preliminary fight against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lakers won in a spectacular 11th-round knockout Thursday.

But after the cheering and the posing and the waist-deep bowing to Kobe Bryant comes the wondering.

How much do they have left for the main card?

How much did Kevin Garnett's roundhouses weaken their knees?

How much did Troy Hudson's jabs take their breath?

The Lakers shut down the Timberwolves, 101-85, in Game 6 of the their first-round playoff series, clinching the series, four games to two.

Emphasis on Game 6.

Bryant was filled with final-act fury, grabbing the Lakers out of a third-quarter funk and dragging them the last steps while barely touching the ground.

Emphasis on Game 6.

Shaquille O'Neal was in brilliant closer mode, Robert Horry stayed gloriously awake, Derek Fisher spent the night skidding across floorboards and press tables.

Emphasis on Game 6.

It was fun, it was dramatic, it will never get old watching Wally Szczerbiak dissolve into a small green puddle.

But, man, did it have to take this long?

"I told the team after this game that Minnesota tested us, and we have to improve as a basketball club," Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged afterward. "We have to make strides to continue winning. There's a lot of places we can improve as a basketball club."

Not to be a party pooper, but any account of the Lakers' series acquisition would be incomplete without a description of the price tag.

It cost them Rick Fox.

It cost them a bruise to Bryant's right shoulder.

It cost buckets of sweat off O'Neal's back.

It cost them at least one more game, two fewer days of rest before the next round, and one giant glimpse of their mortality.

None of it seemed to matter in the fourth quarter Thursday when Bryant, showing again that he is the best pressure player in the sports world -- this includes you, Derek Jeter -- scored the first 10 Laker points to finally put the Timberwolves to rest.

"We like closing teams out, we take a lot of joy in closing teams out," Bryant said earlier this week. "It's what we do."

But it's also what Sacramento did earlier this week, and what San Antonio did Thursday, and neither was beaten up like the champs.

Through nearly every step of the playoffs, the Lakers can rightfully claim that they've "been here before."

But they've never been quite here.

Under Jackson, they have never played six games in their first seven-game playoff series. They have never needed more than five.

And they have never gone this far without Fox. His absence because of a torn left foot tendon seems incidental, but don't be fooled.

"We miss him more than a lot of people think," said Fisher, who wears Fox's number on his wrist. "He brought so much emotion to the floor in big games."

It was Fox whose defense was in the middle of 12 straight Portland misses during the Lakers' fourth-quarter comeback in the memorable Game 7 three years ago.

It was Fox who hit the big three-pointer in the fourth quarter of the championship-clinching game against the Indiana Pacers later that postseason.

Then, last year in Game 7 in Sacramento, it was Fox who led the third-quarter charge with one sequence that included two offensive rebounds, an assist and a steal.

Until Bryant took over in the fourth quarter Thursday, it was Fox who was sorely missed.

When asked if his team can win another championship without him, Fox said, "I believe, I truly believe. What I saw the other night in Minnesota made me even more of a believer."

That sort of belief will be needed on the floor next week in San Antonio. The Spurs swept the Lakers in four games this season, will have one more home game, and are such a formidable opponent that Jackson was tweaking them even before Thursday's games had ended.

When asked about the difficulty the Spurs had in a 4-2 series win over the Phoenix Suns, Jackson said, "I am somewhat surprised by that. They led after the third quarter in those games, but sometimes came up short trying to close them off. They've showed their vulnerability."

That makes two of them.

The Timberwolves showed that the Lakers can be pressed and hassled and hurried, not for an entire series, but long enough to be scary.

The Timberwolves showed that power forwards can score this spring on Robert Horry, not huge numbers always, but sometimes huge enough.

The Timberwolves stopped the Lakers from looking forward and made them look in the mirror.

Not a bad thing, necessarily.

"We started out lackadaisical," Jackson said of the series. "We had to buckle down and become a better defensive team."

At least one of them buckled down late Thursday.

"I just pace myself," Bryant said after his 31-point effort, his right shoulder bundled in ice as if he had just pitched a complete game. "It's funny when people say they can contain Kobe. I can put the ball in the hole anytime I want to."

That much, everyone knows.

About the rest, there is still wonder.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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