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‘The Big Ticket’ Could Cash In

Now we’ll learn about Kevin Garnett’s hands.

You know the lean body and the bald head, the occasionally bold mouth.

Game 5 of the playoffs tonight is the time to check his hands, to see if they’re strong enough to grab this series, dexterous enough to guide the Minnesota Timberwolves past the Lakers.

Garnett has made his mark on this series, but he has yet to take it over.

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He has set the tone with his play, averaging 29.8 points, 16.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, two steals and two blocked shots. He can get his shot off against every defender the Lakers have assigned to him. On Sunday, he drew the ultimate compliment when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant jumped out to throw a $280-million double team on him in the corner. He also missed two free throws that could have pulled Minnesota to within a point with 15.7 seconds remaining.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of “the Big Ticket.” He has set the tone with his words, producing some of the most memorable quotes of the playoffs.

“They’re going to have to really stab us, cut our hearts out and put us in the morgue,” was his way of letting the world know that the Timberwolves weren’t going anywhere after Game 2.

“We had them on the ropes too,” he lamented after the Lakers had escaped with a five-point victory in Game 4. “And they know it.”

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The Lakers do know it. They look mentally drained. They left Staples Center on Sunday wondering if that same level of play would be enough to win in Minneapolis.

Of the last 149 minutes played, the Lakers have led for only 23 minutes and 38 seconds. That’s less than two quarters in 12 quarters plus one overtime of basketball. They’re spending so much time pushing, holding on, rallying that they rarely get the chance to play with ease and comfort. It’s stressful just to watch.

Somehow, though, the Lakers have found a way to tap into their reservoir of winning memories. Since they started their run in 2000, not only have they won the four games in which they faced elimination, they have won what Laker broadcaster Stu Lantz calls the “better” games -- as in, better win or you’ll be in trouble. By my count, these Lakers are 6-0 in such contests, with Game 4 of last year’s conference finals the most recent example.

Until Sunday.

The pregame video that played on the scoreboard set the tone perfectly.

“Our House,” said the giant white letters, accompanied by shots of the cheering fans at Staples Center.

“Our Legacy,” it continued, with a backdrop of the Lakers’ championship banners and trophies.

It concluded: “Who Wants It?”

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All of the words still apply, only now for Minnesota.

The Timberwolves are back home at Target Center tonight, trying to end their sad history of six consecutive first-round losses.

Can Garnett get them to the second round? Or will it be another May spent at the crib?

Everyone wants to see Garnett do well. He’s popular with both the old school and new school. Veterans like him because he respects them, and the youngsters like him because he helped clear the path from high school straight to the NBA. He can wear baggy hip-hop wear, but with his face and attitude, if he put on a beret he’d look right at home in a jazz club.

For now, he can’t get past the ropes of the NBA’s most exclusive site. If Garnett wants all the love shown to the top players in the league, he must somehow find a way to play into June.

“That’s the only way people get true recognition, by what they do in the playoffs,” Garnett said going into the series. “A chef is not known for his appetizers, so to speak.”

Garnett has served up the big dishes. A 7-footer with long arms shooting fall-away jumpers -- how can anyone stop that? And when the Lakers tried to attack Minnesota’s defense in the second half of Game 3 by driving to the hoop, Garnett kept materializing to block their shots.

They go to him repeatedly in the fourth quarter, which point guard Rod Strickland calls “Ticket Time.”

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I’ve felt Garnett was this season’s most valuable player for four months now. Nothing he’s done in this series has made me regret it. And he may be winning more converts.

When Bryant drove to the hoop on a crucial possession in Game 4, Garnett jumped and his body hit Bryant. It was almost as if the officials had seen the MVP voting, realized that Garnett finished ahead of Kobe, and kept their whistles quiet.

He certainly has made progress since last year, when he received the brunt of the criticism when Dallas swept the Timberwolves. In the TNT studios, Magic Johnson called out Garnett for not taking over down the stretch, then Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith joined in.

(The network’s playoff slogan should have an addition “Win or go home -- and get clowned by the TNT crew.”)

“I was motivated when we got put out by Dallas last year,” Garnett said. “I think it’s driving me to this point where I’m at now, know what I mean? Magic, Charles, Kenny, myself, [Minnesota General Manager] Kevin McHale, all the criticism ... it’s part of it. You’ve got to have that tough skin.

“I see me every day. I took it really hard.”

Johnson was in his baseline seat at Staples Center last Thursday when Garnett scored eight of Minnesota’s 12 points in the final four minutes of regulation.

Garnett said he wasn’t trying to prove a point. Then he cracked a little smile.

“But I was aware that he was in the corner,” he said.

He should know that we’re all looking on tonight, whether it be courtside, behind the studio desks or on the couch, all wondering the same question.

Whatcha got for us, KG?

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

KG Factor

*--* Kevin Garnett’s statistics per game through four playoff games against the Lakers: Points 29.8 Rebounds 16.5 FG % .543 FT% .682 Assists 5.8 Blocks 2.0

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