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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Inevitable Overtakes Feisty Timberwolves

June 01, 2004|Mark Heisler

Bear Bryant supposedly once told a reserve to go in for Jimmy to block a defensive end, who kept getting his quarterback.

"I'll try, Coach," said the reserve.

"Sit down, son," the Bear is supposed to have said. "Jimmy's trying."

The Timberwolves tried. They would have been outgunned in any event, and it wasn't even close with Sam Cassell out.

Nevertheless, they still took the Lakers to six games, and threw a scare into them in Game 6, before finally succumbing to what had seemed to be the inevitable all along.

"I told our guys after the game I was proud of them," said Coach Flip Saunders.

"We've never made excuses through the year because of injuries or whatever. I thought we had a good series. It could have been a great series if we could have had one of our other point guards, just from a depth situation."

The Timberwolves were missing two point guards, with Troy Hudson, last spring's star, leaving before the playoffs, and Cassell hurt in the second round, so maybe the Timberwolves mention their injuries a little bit.

However, aside from that, and Saunders' noting mildly they were "somewhat disappointed" at having to start the West finals with one day off after Game 7 against the Kings, the Timberwolves' attitude was exemplary.

This contrasted with the Laker attitude in Monday night's first half, when they blew sky high after several close calls went against them, and Shaquille O'Neal wound up with four fouls.

Of course, O'Neal had no business being on the floor after picking up his third foul with 2:11 left in the half, except, in what could have been the biggest gaffe of his coaching career, Phil Jackson let him stay on the floor.

Referee Ken Mauer then called the fourth on O'Neal for bumping Latrell Sprewell on the dribble. The call was arguable but, then, O'Neal should have been on the bench, where he couldn't bump anyone but Horace Grant.

The Lakers were apoplectic, seeming to forget that 1) Kevin Garnett had been out of the game in foul trouble before O'Neal was, although Saunders took his star out; and 2) the Lakers are the officials' darlings, having shot 388 more free throws than opponents this season and 49 more than the Timberwolves this series.

Nevertheless, the officials were booed off the floor at halftime by an indignant Staples Center crowd.

Said a league official: "I thought we were in Sacramento."

Not that it might not have had an effect. In the second half, the officials called 15 fouls on Minnesota, eight on the Lakers.

Until then, it had been a clinic in Timberwolves' pride.

The Lakers led them by 11 in the first quarter, looking like they were going to blow them out. However, with Garnett back in the second quarter and Kobe Bryant out in foul trouble, they were within two points by halftime and up by four points early in the third period.

But then, that's what the Timberwolves do.

"I think everyone is getting worn down a little bit," Saunders said before the game. "I think that we throw maybe more bodies at them. We've got some older guys, but we've got some younger guys that might be able to fire back a little bit better in situations.

"And I think the other thing is, we're a team, we've always prided ourselves on our ability to always play hard all the time. So we don't have to give out a lot of energy and come back two days later and now we can rest or whatever. We're used to playing where we play hard, rest a day and come back again."

So they came back again, and again, until the Lakers recovered their poise in the third period and the Timberwolves finally faded in the fourth, under an onslaught of Kareem Rush.

The only thing the Timberwolves want to know is, Kareem Rush?

"We were right there in the fourth quarter," Saunders said. "We tried to make a run, and it was like we didn't have any juice.

"They were smart. They pressured us, and I had to let Kevin run the point more than I would have liked to."

The Timberwolves came a long way, they just didn't go far enough. On the other hand, they'll get Cassell and Hudson back next season and go from there.

"You guys didn't even get to see the duo of him and Sam, Sam at the 2 [shooting guard] and Huddy at the point," Garnett said. "We saw it a couple times at practice. Everything was just bright and I think that was one of the biggest blows we took this year was the fact T-Hud got hurt.

"But I got a taste of the conference finals. It's like [Latrell Sprewell] said in the locker room, 'It doesn't mean anything if you don't win at all.'

"I'm always trying to grab something positive out of all the negatives. It's something we got to build on."

That would be next season. In this one, they just fell by the wayside.

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