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Fisher the difference-maker down the stretch

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- With five days off between playoff games,
Shaquille O'Neal had time to relax, get rejuvenated -- and even read
up on free-throw shooting.

That extra study time made a big difference against the weary
Timberwolves in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

O'Neal had 27 points, 18 rebounds and a superb performance at
the free-throw line, and Kobe Bryant added 23 points in the Los
Angeles Lakers' 97-88 victory over Minnesota in Game 1 Friday
night.

Executing almost flawlessly in their offensive sets, Los Angeles
made just two turnovers in the second half, running the triangle
offense and countless pick-and-rolls to perfection.

And when Minnesota fouled O'Neal, the 38-percent playoff foul
shooter went 9-for-11. He credited his sudden proficiency to an
article given to him by coach Phil Jackson -- about an 80-year-old
man who made more than 3,000 straight free throws.

"I've just really been focusing on my routine," O'Neal said.
"The article said that if you focus too much on the result, you
fail."

Playoff excellence also is routine for the Lakers. In a
workmanlike victory that ended with a 9-2 run, they showed why
they're playing for their fourth conference championship in five
years.

Game 2 is Sunday night. The series moves to Los Angeles on
Tuesday.

Karl Malone had 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who
seemed unaffected by the Timberwolves or their deafening Target
Center crowd enjoying the franchise's first trip to the conference
finals.

The Lakers nursed a narrow lead through most of the fourth
quarter until Derek Fisher, who had 14 points, made a 3-pointer
from the corner with 58 seconds left, essentially clinching the
win. Fisher also scored eight points in the final minutes of the
third quarter to put Los Angeles ahead for good.

"We really didn't do anything special tonight," Bryant said.
"We stuck to our basic defensive principles. ... Now, a good
opportunity is here to go back with two wins, and we need to try
hard to seize it."

Kevin Garnett had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the
Timberwolves, back in action two days after finishing an exhausting
seven-game series against Sacramento. Latrell Sprewell had 23
points, and Sam Cassell added 16 points and eight assists despite
sitting out the fourth quarter with a sore back.

Though the Lakers pointed out the Timberwolves' apparent
weariness, particularly down the stretch, Garnett and Sprewell
rejected that excuse. But Cassell limped back out to the court at
halftime, then sat out the final 13 minutes when his back tightened
up -- and the Wolves missed his offensive creativity.

"The first game is sort of a feel-out game," Sprewell said.
"You're just kind of seeing what's happening out there, and we
didn't make our adjustments quick enough."

The Lakers earned their fifth straight victory, and it followed
much the same script as their four wins over San Antonio: good
defense, proficient offense and far too much Shaq and Kobe.

Neither team took a significant lead until late in the third
quarter, when Fisher's back-to-back 3-pointers were followed by
another from Kareem Rush. Fisher added a jumper with 2.1 seconds
left, and the Lakers went into the fourth up 78-67 while holding
Minnesota without a field goal in the final 3:41.

The Timberwolves got within 88-86 on Sprewell's jumper with 4:04
left, but the Lakers rolled to the finish, starting with Devean
George's electrifying one-handed dunk.

"Most of the game, we had good energy," coach Flip Saunders
said. "We just had two bad stretches. When you're playing a team
as good as the Lakers, you can't have those lapses."

Michael Olowokandi had 10 points and 11 rebounds while playing
solid defense against O'Neal -- but even the best defense only slows
the Diesel, who got plenty of good shots and set up others for his
teammates by drawing a double-team.

"I'm also one of those players that probably won't be
stopped," O'Neal deadpanned.

The series' biggest one-on-one matchup was a draw, because
Sprewell and Bryant couldn't stop each other for even a moment.
Bryant scored 14 points in the second half, while Sprewell had 18 --
both swingmen embarrassing any defender put in front of them.

Game notes
Malone wore black Dada sneakers with shiny yellow vertical
stripes and the "POW-MIA" logo honoring war heroes. ... A group
of workers were on strike at the Lakers' team hotel Friday, forcing
the team to cross the picket line to board the bus to the Target
Center. ... Cris Carter, former Raptors coach Butch Carter and
Kirby Puckett were among the Minnesota sports luminaries in
attendance.