Rush hits six 3s; Shaq has double-double

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- This was why Karl Malone and Gary Payton
signed on: The chance to play for a championship with the two guys
who know all about it.

Shaquille O'Neal had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Kobe Bryant
scored 20 points in a 96-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves
in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Monday night.

"This is the reason I came over here," said Malone, who will
play for his first title in his 19th season. "I love being a part
of this team. We've had a lot of struggles, but that's part of the
reason you play. You've got to have a struggle to get to where you
want to go."

Kareem Rush came from nowhere to hit six 3-pointers for the
Lakers, who rallied in the fourth quarter for a win befitting their
tumultuous season. They overcame Kevin Garnett, their constant
bickering with the referees and O'Neal's horrific 7-for-20 free
throw shooting to win the best-of-seven series.

Their fourth trip to the championship round in five seasons will
begin Sunday. Detroit, leading the Eastern Conference finals 3-2,
will visit Los Angeles if the Pistons finish off the Indiana Pacers
on Tuesday night.

"It's tough to do," Bryant said. "Four trips to the finals --
it's remarkable. We're very fortunate."

The Lakers improved to 9-0 at Staples Center in the postseason,
but Garnett and the Timberwolves spent most of the game on the
verge of an improbable upset.

Unbowed by the Lakers' nine championship banners and
intimidating home crowd, the Timberwolves played tight defense and
made enough free throws to take a lead into the fourth quarter. But
Bryant and Rush led a 15-6 run early in the quarter, and Slava
Medvedenko added two critical baskets in the final minutes.

Malone and Payton, who joined the Lakers last summer as free
agents for significantly less than their market value, joined their
teammates in a group hug near the bench before accepting the
conference championship trophy.

Garnett -- who had eight turnovers and fouled out in the final
minute -- had 22 points and 17 rebounds for the Timberwolves.
Latrell Sprewell scored 27 points as Minnesota nearly extended the
best season in franchise history to a Game 7 in Minneapolis.

Instead, the Wolves' first trip to the conference finals ended
when it couldn't score enough to overcome the absence of injured
All-Star Sam Cassell. The Lakers stole Game 1 in Minnesota and hung
on for three home victories despite an impressive series from
Garnett, who averaged 23.7 points and 13.5 rebounds.

"I got a taste of the Western Conference finals," Garnett
said, "but it's like Spree said in the locker room. It doesn't
mean anything if you don't win it all. ... We've just got to use
this as experience and add a couple of pieces and go from there."

Bryant, O'Neal and Garnett all got in first-half foul trouble in
a tightly officiated game. O'Neal sat on the bench for 4{ minutes
in the fourth quarter after picking up his fifth foul, and Malone
also got five fouls trying to stay with Garnett.

But Rush, the second-year swingman who had 11 points in the
entire series, made shot after shot from the perimeter. His
3-pointer with 3:22 to play gave Los Angeles a 10-point lead and
sent the crowd into pandemonium.

"He's one of the best shooters on the team," O'Neal said as
his young teammate beamed nearby. "I'm the guy that's always on
him, and he responded. I didn't have to get on him too much

Though only five players remain from the Lakers' 2000
championship team, the current club has many similarities to the
three-time titlists. The Lakers are almost invincible when even one
of their role players hits his outside shots -- and Rush splendidly
filled the role previously played by Glen Rice, Robert Horry and
Rick Fox.

But this series was in doubt until the final minutes of Game 6.
After Minnesota won Game 5 to snap the Lakers' streak of 12
straight victories in potential closeout games, Los Angeles looked
awfully shaky for most of this homecoming.

As usual, they expended plenty of energy arguing: Payton and
Malone got technical fouls, and Bryant got one in his fourth
straight game.

The Lakers jumped to a 13-point lead in the first quarter with
Garnett out, but Minnesota rallied largely by going 21-for-22 from
the free throw line.

The Lakers hurt themselves with foolish defensive ploys and
O'Neal's poor free throw shooting -- and coach Phil Jackson
inexplicably left O'Neal in the game with three fouls late in the
first half. Shaq picked up his fourth with 1:01 to play.

"We were right there in a great position," Sprewell said. "We
played well halfway through that fourth quarter, but down the
stretch, we didn't execute. ... For 100 games now, every night, we
gave ourselves a shot."

Game notes
Jackson now has a chance for his 10th title, more than any
coach in team sports. ... Payton had seven points and eight
assists. ... The Timberwolves made their first 12 free throws and
finished 24-for-26. ... In the second quarter, a foul call against
Fisher incensed the crowd -- including actor Jack Nicholson, who
leaped from his courtside seat to berate referee Ken Mauer.
Nicholson was coaxed back into his seat by Minnesota coach Flip
Saunders. ... Minnesota committed 19 turnovers that led to 33
points for the Lakers.