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Timberwolves Are Running Out of Answers

All of a sudden, it’s late and the kids are up way past their bedtime.

At the end of a series, it’s not so much as who’s playing at home as who doesn’t care where they play. In this series, that’s the Lakers who must have decided they’d been baby-sitting the young Minnesota Timberwolves long enough.

What ensued wasn’t pretty, here anyway, although it was decisive, sending the best-of-seven series back to Los Angeles with the Timberwolves down, 3-2, and vowing, once again, not to go out without a fight.

On the other hand, what’s left for them to try?

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When they were routed in Game 1, they took their effort up another level and actually took control of the series, although not quite for long enough.

Not that the same thing is likely to work again. They’ve already been playing as hard as anyone can play.

“Troy [Hudson] has been playing at an unbelievable level,” said Timberwolf Coach Flip Saunders afterward, “but ... there’s no question, he’s getting worn down. We’re probably all getting worn down a little bit, with the pressure we’re trying to put on them.”

Nor would you say they’re firing on all cylinders. Wally Szczerbiak, an ’02 All-Star and still their No. 2 scorer this season after a late start because of injury, had been a minor factor before tonight, when he all but disappeared entirely.

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This was supposed to be Szczerbiak’s escape from Rick Fox but instead, Fox’s replacement, Devean George, swallowed Wally up too.

As Fox had, George stayed close to Szczerbiak, no matter what else was going on. When Szczerbiak doesn’t get open looks, he gets anxious, dribbles into traffic and, more often than not, something bad happens, as in the first half, when he had four points with four turnovers.

“It’s not the individual [defender],” Saunders said. “We told Wally, in this league they have a new thing called videotape. They know. They watch film.”

As he often does when he struggles, Szczerbiak noted the Timberwolves hadn’t moved the ball as well as they might have, suggesting he only needs more touches and looks.

Several Lakers, however, remarked on Szczerbiak’s struggles and the reaction they elicited, personal and on the community’s behalf.

“Seems like he’s under a lot of pressure to perform here in this town for whatever reason,” said Kobe Bryant. “It seems like the fans are really on him. Whatever shot he missed, the fans were really ragging on him. That’s a lot of pressure for a player to be under.”

Said Brian Shaw: “We heard some fans yelling at him and we saw him hang his head. You could tell how he was feeling so we wanted to jump on it.”

By the end, it was hard to remember how recently the Timberwolves led this series, 2-1, with an 11-point lead in Game 4, but it was only last Sunday.

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As usual, more than 2,000 seats for this game were unsold the day before. This time, though, they were bought, even if it was another 8:40 p.m. start on a school night, and the hockey Wild was playing at home too.

Despite all the excitement, Saunders started the night, worrying how his young team would stand up against the pressure-tested Lakers. As it turned out, he had a lot to worry about.

“They’ve been in these situations,” Saunders said before the game. “We’re in uncharted waters. I said after we went up 2-1 that we’ve been involved in series but we’ve never been in a playoff series. Now we’re in a playoff series....

“To play a team of their caliber that’s a defending champion ... they’ve been there before. We haven’t been there.”

The trouble started on the very first Laker possession, when Derek Fisher made a three-point basket, just as he had in the Lakers’ rout in Game 1. As Saunders noted later: “Well, it was like ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”

For the Timberwolves, the trouble continued when Fisher made two more three-pointers in the quarter ... and Robert Horry, who hadn’t made one all series, made two in a row in the second ... and the roof fell in on them for real in the third.

By the start of the fourth, the game was long over.

“They took it to us on both ends of the floor,” said Szczerbiak. “

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They’re the Timberwolves, they always try, even if trying isn’t always enough.


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