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Lakers Can Come Home as Winners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers’ accelerator got stuck at times, and they got bumped and nudged again, but they managed to get back into victory lane here Saturday.

Then, their emotional three-game trip completed, they raced home, seeking rest, comfort and a long pit stop.

Obviously, this business of building long winning streaks, losing them, then starting all over again can be a thoroughly draining experience.

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“A couple guys were tired, including myself,” Shaquille O’Neal said after the Lakers’ blue-collar 104-91 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves before a sellout crowd at Target Center.

“But we were able to muster it up, suck it up and get a win.”

Fighting the fatigue, O’Neal had 26 points, 19 rebounds, five blocked shots and seven assists to lead the effort. Kobe Bryant had 22 points and six assists, and Glen Rice had 17 points.

With every right to spend a day or two mourning the end of their 16-game winning streak, the Lakers (32-6) bounced back from Friday’s defeat in Indianapolis, slugged back when the Timberwolves fired everything they had, and choked Minnesota with brutal efficiency in a game-deciding fourth quarter.

The score was tied, 80-80, heading into the final period, after Minnesota put 31 points up in the third quarter--keyed by point guard Terrell Brandon, who had seven assists and 11 points in the period.

But in the fourth, Derek Fisher started harrying Brandon (six points but no assists in the fourth) and the Laker defense held Minnesota without a basket for the first 5:18 and to only 11 points in the quarter overall.

The Lakers have won 24 of their last 26 games, and beat a Minnesota team that had won 11 of 13.

“It was a take-care-of-business type of game,” said Coach Phil Jackson, who had been eager to see how his team would respond to its first loss since Dec. 6. “This was a real game in which we had to go out and prove to ourselves.

“We had to take care of business and not get flustered if they had a run.”

Before the game, Jackson said that O’Neal, who missed 15 shots Friday against the Pacers, had looked a bit weary throughout the trip, probably because the Laker center has a new son--Rashaun Shareef--who was born Tuesday.

“I don’t talk about my personal life, but yes, I am a proud father,” said O’Neal, who was 11 for 20 from the field Saturday against the Timberwolves’ double-teams.

But O’Neal said he didn’t think that was a factor for him on this trip, which began with a game in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

“I don’t think so,” said O’Neal, who played 43 minutes. “Just tired, kind of beat up. I’ll be back.”

O’Neal dominated the boards throughout the game, asked for and received an earlier-than-usual four-minute breather from Jackson in the first half, then scored eight points in the fourth quarter--even though he was 0 for 5 from the free-throw line in the period.

Fisher, meanwhile, strafed the Timberwolves in the fourth, outscoring them by himself, 12-11, with four three-pointers in five attempts when Minnesota trapped the ball and left him open.

Meanwhile, Minnesota made only four of its 18 shots in the quarter and was outrebounded, 17-6.

What did the Lakers do differently defensively in the fourth quarter?

“We just had an opportunity to talk a little bit about our defensive intensity, what we were doing defensively that was not good,” Jackson said. “Derek, I felt, controlled Brandon in that fourth quarter.”

Bryant, for his part, said the Lakers’ main motivation wasn’t to make up for the lost winning streak--but to avoid a losing streak.

“We just didn’t want to lose two in a row, you know what I mean?” Bryant said. “Just kind of want to nip it in the bud, we lost one, big deal, come out, win . . . get back on the right track. . . .

“We just wanted to come in and punch the block, go home to L.A. and play in the Staples Center. It’s our home. That’s our castle.”


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