Of all the changes the Lakers made, the most notable one was this: they stopped being tired from this series and became tired of it.
After three games of being worn down by Minnesota’s relentless pressure, it looked as if they were sick of all the talk about the end of the run and the speculation about who would succeed them on the throne.
They’d had it with the appointment of Kevin Garnett as the next Man. They weren’t trying to hear about their vulnerability now that Rick Fox is out for the rest of the playoffs.
And maybe they just didn’t like the sound of those noisemakers handed to the fans at Target Center.
So, for one night, they put a stop to it.
They played their most well-rounded playoff game to date and made one last attempt to break the Minnesota Timberwolves’ will with a 120-90 victory in Game 5. Now if they’ve really changed they’ll break out of the on-again, off-again swings of this season and close out the Timberwolves in Game 6.
They certainly stomped on Minnesota’s home court advantage Tuesday. This victory was so convincing that most of the 20,098 fans took their clackers and left with 5 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers did it because they were the team that made the dramatic moves.
It’s getting pretty late in the series to introduce new wrinkles. By this point both teams have shown their hands.
“The adjustments that you’re going to make are pretty much made,” Timberwolves’ Coach Flip Saunders said before the game.
That wasn’t the attitude in the Laker coaches’ offices.
They decided it was finally time to heed the cry heard throughout Lakerland and double-team Garnett. Although Garnett still found a way to score 25 points on 11-for-23 shooting, they at least didn’t give him free rein to shoot his jumper whenever he wanted and they succeeded in getting the ball out of his hands.
“We just felt like at this particular time it’s important for us to make him give it up, make somebody else have to shoot,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “He’s been establishing a rhythm out there on the post and it was difficult to stop him from scoring individually. We thought maybe if he had to kick it out we could get something else happening.”
They also dispelled Saunders’ theory that if the Timberwolves held Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant below a combined 60 points they would win. Even though they totaled 59, the last 10 of those were merely fourth-quarter gravy long after the game’s outcome had been decided.
The Lakers won because they got double-digit scoring from all five starters. Derek Fisher’s 24 points shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who has been watching the series; he made 61% of his three-point shots in the first four games.
But Robert Horry’s 12 points had to be a welcome relief in Lakerland. He was 0 for 12 on three-pointers, including his first attempt Tuesday, before he finally knocked down two in Game 5.
Perhaps that trip to a local arcade Monday helped him regain his shooting skills.
The Lakers also listened to O’Neal’s complaints and ran the offense through him. So if it wasn’t O’Neal scoring inside it was Fisher or Devean George or even Horry (remember him?) shooting wide-open three-pointers after the defense collapsed.
They finally appropriated some martial arts philosophy and used the opponent’s strength against him. The Timberwolves have suffocated the Lakers with their full-court press, and until Tuesday, the Lakers didn’t bother to exploit its weakness, the vulnerability to transition baskets. It just makes sense that with so many defenders in the backcourt if you get by them quickly enough you can get a numbers advantage in the frontcourt.
That’s the way it worked when Fisher broke loose, went straight to the hoop to draw Rasho Nesterovic, then dished to O’Neal for a dunk. Even Mark Madsen slipped out of a double-team and dribbled about 25 feet for a layup.
Another difference was the play of Bryant. He stopped trying to shoot his way back into the scoring column and recognized that he could do more damage by penetrating and getting the ball to his hot teammates. In the second quarter he didn’t take a shot, while the rest of the Lakers made 65% of theirs.
“I didn’t want to disrupt the flow that we had,” Bryant said.
The flow was all Bryant’s in the second half, when he made nine of 12 shots for 23 points. To show how badly he wanted to put the Timberwolves away, he risked some pain in his ailing shoulder when he drove by Garnett down the baseline and threw down a reverse dunk that was so sick he should have first passed out surgical masks to the fans in the front row.
He rubbed his arm afterward and said he lost feeling in the shoulder for about 30 seconds. But he had no regrets.
“You’ve gotta do that,” Bryant said. “A slam like that can be demoralizing to the home team, can take a lot of life out of the home crowd. When the opportunity’s there, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
One statistic jumped out of the box score: points off turnovers. The Lakers scored 29 points off 17 Minnesota turnovers, while committing only seven turnovers themselves (for four points).
“We made it easy for them,” Bryant said. “When you turn the ball over that much and give them transition baskets, it makes them look great.”
Bryant has a new mantra, one that matches the tailored suits he’s wearing to games this year instead of the throwback jerseys.
“We take care of business,” he said.