They’ll Play From Behind

Times Staff Writer

They did not pull the drapes in El Segundo, at the gray stone building that holds the Laker offices and gym and ideals.

They did wipe away their who-are-these-guys-anyway expressions long enough to push through a couple of hours of film, and a few of them scrimmaged as Kobe Bryant and others stopped to assess Thursday’s overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and reassess the two-games-to-one deficit in their best-of-seven series.

Asked, politely, if he still felt like a champion, Bryant lifted his arms slightly, stared down at his ever-leaner body and said, “I don’t know. Do I look like a champion?”

His laughter rattled through the notepads and the cleverly disguised questions that hinted at approaching disaster, carried perhaps by Kevin Garnett & Co., or perhaps by age and circumstance, or whatever might be out there.

Bryant, speaking for the group, said, “We lost two games. OK. Fine. Let’s get back and get the next one.”


That would be Sunday, Game 4, for the Lakers a chance to pull even, for the Timberwolves a chance to have every basketball fan in the country slap his forehead come Monday morning.

While the league leans in and wonders if its regular-season suspicions about the Lakers were true, if the three-time defending champions had grown so tired not even Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal could hoist them, the Lakers themselves waded further.

They went to overtime, fouled out Garnett on the slightest contact, and still lost, 114-110, for the moment because they could not contain ... Marc Jackson and Anthony Peeler. The Timberwolves have won now with Garnett in the game and with him on the floor, the latter while on all fours in front of the Timberwolf bench, pleading for defensive stops and true jumpers and another game toward the first playoff series win in franchise history.

“There’s pressure,” Bryant said of the Laker situation. “Absolutely.”

Phil Jackson -- whose team is 0-2 since his beard filled out -- preached calm and patience, and also wondered how long the defense would look like this, how long before the free throws fell, and how long before Shaq became Shaq again. It is the second time in three series the Lakers have trailed after three games; they beat the Sacramento Kings in seven games in the last Western Conference finals, when they answered a lot of the same challenges the Timberwolves have put up.

His players crossed their arms and tried to look bored at the whole idea that their season is in danger, even as the Timberwolves tried to explain the difference between “arrogance” and “confidence” after their practice at Loyola Marymount. The series has come a long way, indeed.

“I think we know this game is a need game for us,” Jackson said. “We have to re-establish something on our home court. It’s not going to be championship banners hanging on the wall. It’s going to have to be our play that does that.”

The Timberwolves did not fall over dead at the sight of the Lakers, nor at the sight of the Lakers winning by 19 points in Game 1. They are shooting 50.6% from the floor, and they are delivering the hard blows, making the hard stops. It’s what Jackson meant about today’s Lakers fighting today’s fight.

“We saw some fear in their eyes on Sunday,” he said. “They were confused a little bit. They came back out with renewed vigor on Tuesday and carried that momentum into [Thursday] night’s game. Everything turns on a trifle. Kobe makes a free throw, we’re all laughing about the great comeback we had. So, that’s the way things are in basketball.”

In the past few Aprils, they would have made that free throw. Or Robert Horry would have buried the three-pointer he missed. Or O’Neal would have been so ferocious that one free throw meant nothing.

“Yeah, that’s true,” Jackson said. “Those are the things that change in a year.”

Or in a weekend.

“We have to do more than just play, just put our normal game on, and throw the ball into Shaq and let him do his ‘Diesel’ act inside the lane and score, give the ball to Kobe and let him operate in an individual area with a guy in his face,” he said. “We have to do more than that against this team, which is great. If you win a championship you have to play like a championship team.”

Their assumptions of superiority dashed, the Lakers have spent half a week getting outdone, and the blood on the floor has been theirs, sometimes literally.

“Right now, we’re a different team than last year’s team, or the last three championships,” Rick Fox said. “We’re going to have to make our own way through this. The regular season wasn’t as pretty as everybody hoped it would be. Maybe the playoffs, this run won’t be either. We’re going to have to find ways to win.”

The theme has been a common one among Lakers. They thought they were building toward something smooth and methodical, only to find it’s the same old game.

“We just have to stay with it and continue to stay together as a team and believe,” Derek Fisher said. “This isn’t any different than our whole season has been. Why should it become easier now, when it’s been difficult and up and down all season long?”



Shooting Star Fades

*--* Kobe Bryant’s statistics in the first half of Game 1 of the Lakers’ playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and those for the rest of the series: GAME 1 First Half REST OF SERIES Total MINUTES 21 120 POINTS 28 68 POINTS PER MIN.* 1.3 057 FG MADE-ATT 12-16 23-70 FG PCT 750 329 3PT MADE-ATT 1-2 3-12 3PT PCT 500 250 FT MADE-ATT 3-3 19-22 FT PCT 1.000 864 TURNOVERS 0 10 * Bryant averaged .072 points per minute in the regular season



*--* Lakers vs. Minnesota First round; Timberwolves lead series, 2-1 GAME 1 April 20--Lakers 117, at Minnesota 98 GAME 2 April 22--at Minnesota 119, Lakers 91 GAME 3 April 24--Minnesota 114, at Lakers 110 (OT) GAME 4 Sunday--at Staples Center, Noon, Ch. 7 GAME 5 Tuesday--at Minnesota, 6:30 p.m., Ch. 9, TNT GAME 6* Thursday--at Staples Center, TBA, TNT and FSN GAME 7* May 3--at Minnesota, TBA, TNT or ESPN; Ch. 9 * if necessary