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Closing With a Rush

Reserve guard makes six three-pointers, three in the fourth quarter, and L.A., shackled early by O'Neal's and Bryant's foul trouble, pulls away to finish off the Timberwolves and reach the NBA Finals.

June 01, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Before there would be much of a celebration Monday night, Karl Malone stared up at the people of Staples Center, pulled his cap down tight, lowered his head and jogged from the floor.

As Kareem Rush cradled the Western Conference championship trophy, won finally, 96-90, and in six games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Shaquille O'Neal met Malone in the locker room.

The people chanted and Kobe Bryant shouted at them gleefully over the public-address system and Gary Payton watched from the back of a crowd of Lakers. Phil Jackson headed for his 10th NBA Finals, the Lakers to their fourth in five years as his team, and Malone would have none of it. Not yet.

The Finals start Sunday, in Los Angeles against the Detroit Pistons or in Indianapolis against the Indiana Pacers. Malone had won conference championships before. He'd had these parties, seen this optimism, and twice been disappointed by Jackson's Chicago Bulls.

"I haven't done anything," he said. "I got back healthy. I was able to bring something to the team. But I haven't been able to bring the full package to this team. That's to win the title."

The arena floor filled with players and security guards and media and league officials who would be booed, all in the minutes after Rush had made six three-pointers, three in the fourth quarter, and O'Neal had scored 25 points and Kobe Bryant scored 20 and they'd all survived 22 points and 17 rebounds from Kevin Garnett.

In a quiet locker room, Malone, 40 years old and at the end of his 19th NBA season, pulled O'Neal close.

"I gave him a hug," he said. "I kissed him on the jaw. I told him I loved him. He told me, 'Thank you.' "

Twenty minutes later, O'Neal stood in a hallway, his baby daughter in his arms. He ordered her, "Kiss," and she left a damp circle on his cheek.

"I'm just glad," he said, "because of what happened this year. I feel like I'm a man of my word. I told him last summer I was going to get him to this point. That we were going to get him to this point. I feel good for him."

They were to be the best team ever assembled, when Malone and Payton arrived as free agents. But the season did not go as anyone planned, when Malone was struck down by the first serious injury of his career, Payton only put up with the system he volunteered for, and Bryant's legal entanglement seeped into nearly everything they did.

Now, they'll settle for being the best team this season, or the best team in springtime. Or, simply, the team holding the trophy in June, however it comes. It stopped being pretty almost immediately, so it was no surprise when the Timberwolves threw their shoulders back and fought for every inch of the floor.

Malone had 10 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and played Garnett, the league MVP, for everything he had. The Timberwolves had hoped to wear out Malone. Without Sam Cassell or Troy Hudson, their injured point guards, they handed the ball to Garnett, and he ran at Malone, and they pushed each other and leaned on each other. With 19.4 seconds left, Garnett fouled out, leaving Malone and the Lakers, the Timberwolves having been eliminated on the same floor for the second consecutive season.

"I actually thought about retiring a couple times" in previous seasons, Malone said. "What if I would have? I would have missed out on this."

On their way to their 22nd NBA Finals appearance since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, and playing to avoid a Game 7 in Minnesota, the Lakers forced the Timberwolves into 19 turnovers and scored 33 points from them. Garnett, the 7-footer, had eight.

In the fourth quarter, which began with a 68-67 Minnesota lead, the Timberwolves had seven turnovers and the Lakers turned them into 11 points.

Rush, the second-year guard who'd made 10 threes in the postseason until Monday, was three for four from the arc in the final quarter, his first giving them a 71-68 lead. Slava Medvedenko came off the bench, made all three of his shots and scored six points in the fourth quarter. And the Lakers did not trail again, down the stretch pulling away when Rush made a three for an 89-79 lead and Malone made two free throws to put them ahead, 92-81.

"They went small and coach threw me in," Rush said. "And after I made my first shot, I knew it was going to be a good night. It just kept going in for me."

The officiating was heavy-handed, particularly in a first half that ended with 34 fouls called and 40 free throws shot. O'Neal had four fouls by halftime and Bryant had three.

Why O'Neal was on the floor with a minute left in the half and fouls falling like confetti was a question for Jackson, who said his strategy "didn't work."

So the Lakers and Timberwolves spent much of the first two quarters shooting free throws, a bad thing if your center is O'Neal. He was seven for 20 from the line in the game and the Lakers were 17 for 36, while the Timberwolves were 24 for 26.

By the end, his feet in a tub of ice water, the smile faded only some, Malone said it's been almost all he'd hoped it to be. Almost.

"It is kind of amazing," he said. "You just play hard and do the things you are capable of doing and we were able to do that. What a great effort. It is unbelievable."

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