Minnesota ends first-round exit streak

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- First-round futility? For Kevin Garnett and
Minnesota, it's finished.

Though the Timberwolves are glad that playoff burden is gone,
they've been focused all season on bigger things.

Garnett had 28 points, seven rebounds and eight assists to lead
Minnesota to a 102-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday
night, ending an NBA record of seven straight first-round series

"We had 10 new players -- half those guys don't even know who we
lost to last year," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. "Our
goals were higher than winning a first-round playoff series. We
think we have a legitimate chance to win a championship."

Minnesota, which took the best-of-seven series 4-1, will host
Sacramento in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on

"The bear is off my back, so to speak," said Garnett, who had
nine points in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Camby and Andre Miller each scored 21 points for the
Nuggets, who were rooted on by their star rookie, Carmelo Anthony.

His sprained left knee wasn't strong enough to play on and
though the 19-year-old's first postseason was quiet, Denver wasn't
the same with Jon Barry in the starting lineup.

"You lose your leading scorer, obviously it's a big factor,"
Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "But it happens and you deal with
it. I'm very proud of our basketball team."

Sam Cassell had 26 points and Latrell Sprewell scored 15 of his
19 in the first half for the Timberwolves, who got 72 percent of
their scoring in this game from their leading trio. Mark Madsen,
Fred Hoiberg and Ervin Johnson also made valuable contributions.

"They have a good chance," Camby said. "I'll be rooting for

The eighth-seeded Nuggets showed some spunk in their first
playoff series since 1995. But Garnett, the only one to play on all
eight of the Timberwolves' playoff teams, kept Denver from
seriously threatening.

He scored Minnesota's first six points of the fourth quarter -- a
dunk, two free throws and a turnaround -- to bring the lead to 80-68
with 10 minutes left. Denver came within nine points twice after
that, but no closer.

Taken out with 34 seconds to go, Garnett slowly raised his arms
to acknowledge the roaring crowd before heading to the bench.

There were plenty of sideshows in this series, but referee Steve
Javie's crew kept both teams mostly under control. Barry and
Sprewell, last seen jawing at each other after the Wolves' win in
Game 4, guarded each other without incident.

Camby was given a technical foul for taunting the Timberwolves'
bench late in the first half, and Sprewell stuck his tongue out at
his old New York Knicks teammate after swishing a baseline jumper a
few seconds later. They hugged after the game.

"Emotion runs high in the playoffs," Barry said. "This was no
different than any other series."

This was arguably the most important game in the Timberwolves'
15-year history -- there was nothing they wanted less than a return
to the Nuggets' boisterous, high-altitude arena for Game 6.

The late tipoff (8:54 p.m. local time) provided the overflow
sellout crowd of 19,890 plenty of time to get riled up. Before the
game, a quote from Barry about the low noise level at Target Center
during the first two games was posted on the scoreboard next to his

The Wolves obliged their long-suffering fans with a 24-4
second-quarter run to take a 26-point lead. Sprewell stepped in
front of Miller to steal a pass from Michael Doleac and raced the
other way for an uncontested two-handed dunk before yelling at the
Denver bench on the sprint back. That made it 54-28 Minnesota with
4 minutes left in the half.

Saunders took Sprewell and Garnett out shortly after, and the
Nuggets stormed back by scoring the last 13 points of the quarter
to pull within 57-45.

"At halftime, I broke a few things in the bathroom," Saunders
said. "In retrospect, I should've let those guys finish out and
not let them get any kind of energy to get back in the game."

Denver stayed close in the third, too. Neither Sprewell nor
Cassell scored in that period, and Barry's late 3-pointer cut the
lead to 72-66 -- the closest the Nuggets came in more than 25
minutes of play.

"We had a terrible third quarter," Garnett said. "I just told
everybody, 'Bump this, play off me."

Barry, who had fun with the boos from Minnesota's fans
throughout the night, held his index finger up to his lips on the
jog back.

"Vegas had us winning 25 games," Barry said. "People around
town said we could maybe win 35. But we won 43 games and played
Minnesota pretty tough."

Game notes
Barry, a 12-year veteran, made his first start in 55 career
playoff games. ... Despite the Wolves' wishes for silence, fans
again chanted "MVP! MVP!" when Garnett was at the foul line.
"That drives me crazy," Saunders said after one instance in the
fourth quarter. ... Denver's Francisco Elson, who apologized
Thursday for calling Garnett "gay," didn't play. "Coach's
decision," was all Bzdelik said.