Wolves believe in chance at comeback

Updated: May 31, 2004, 11:37 PM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- The Minnesota Timberwolves have a patchwork starting lineup that's missing an All-Star, and they're making up their offensive schemes on the fly in the Western Conference finals.

Still, as long as Kevin Garnett is in the middle of this chaos, the Wolves believe they've got a shot at an improbable comeback.

After a 98-96 victory in Game 5 Saturday night, Minnesota packed its bags for another trip to Los Angeles and another potential elimination game. Point guard Sam Cassell won't play Monday night, missing his second straight game with back spasms and an injured hip. He could need hip surgery, but said he will wait until after the playoffs to make a decision.

But after ending the Lakers' streak of 12 straight victories in elimination games, the Timberwolves put the pressure back on Los Angeles to close it out. Nobody gives Minnesota much of a shot in Game 6, and the Timberwolves will play without the burden of expectations -- and Garnett, who's been brilliant throughout the playoffs, just might have another spectacular game in him.

"That's what it's all about, is a chance to prove everybody wrong," Wally Szczerbiak said Sunday.

Only seven teams have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a series, and only 17 even forced a seventh game. The Timberwolves won at Staples Center on Jan. 30, but the Lakers played without injured stars Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone. And Minnesota has won just three times in Los Angeles since Dec. 5, 1993.

One of those victories was an overtime win in Game 3 of the teams' first-round playoff series last season. The Lakers won the next three games of that series -- but if the Timberwolves' season ends in Los Angeles for the second straight spring, they hope to go down in a style befitting the best season in franchise history.

"You don't want it to end, because it's fun," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said Sunday. "What's fun is seeing the excitement around town. When we played Game 7 (against Sacramento), I told my wife it's almost like we've got to win, because we'll let down the whole town."

But the Wolves won't see many friendly faces in Los Angeles, where another Hollywood crowd will turn out expecting the Lakers to advance to their fourth NBA Finals in five seasons. Minnesota didn't handle the pressure well in the first two games at Staples Center, falling behind early and staying there.

"This series, it's about protecting our homecourt," Kobe Bryant said after a light practice Sunday. "We feel good, we feel confident. This is Game 7 for them.

"Our attitude is to win the game tomorrow -- win the game at all costs."

Garnett's supporting cast was little help in the Timberwolves' earlier losses in Los Angeles, making less than 40 percent of its shots. Latrell Sprewell was 11-for-35 in the two games, while Szczerbiak scored 40 of the Timberwolves' 55 bench points. Sprewell shot 11-of-21 Saturday night.

Cassell scored 18 points in Game 3, but played just five minutes in Game 4. He didn't even dress for Minnesota's home victory Saturday night, and he already has been ruled out for Monday.

"It's killing me, personally, knowing what I can do for us against the Lakers," Cassell said. "I feel sorry for Freddy (Hoiberg) when he's got to do my job."

Hoiberg played 38 minutes in Game 5, mostly as a surrogate point guard when Darrick Martin was ineffective again. Though Hoiberg scored 14 points and hit the biggest shot -- a double-clutch jumper while being fouled with 2:29 left -- he's still a pure shooter who hates bringing the ball upcourt.

"I couldn't dribble and chew gum at the same time coming out of college," he said. "And then I've got the best full-court defender in the league (Derek Fisher), in my opinion, picking me up and pressuring me."

While Minnesota improvised well, the Lakers strayed from their usual formula for success. Shaquille O'Neal went nearly 24 minutes between field goals, while Bryant seemed to be forcing the action against tight defense.

"This game wasn't about Shaq," coach Phil Jackson said Sunday. "He wasn't as active as in the other games. (But) this game wasn't about that. Shaq got his opportunities, Shaq got his chances. He wasn't as energized as he was in the games at home. And that will happen, sometimes.

"This is our home, we'll be in our own beds, rested and ready to play tomorrow night."

The confident Lakers enter Game 6 with an 8-0 record at home in the playoffs.

"Hopefully we can take advantage of the energy we have on our homecourt -- play with a lot more pep in our step," Fisher said.

Fisher smiled when asked if it was surprising that the Lakers' 12-game winning streak in closeout games was snapped.

"Disappointing more than surprising," he replied. "At some point, they have to come to an end. We'll just have to start over tomorrow."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press