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Defending Champions Show Finishing Touch

A city clinging to anything that looks the slightest bit championship-esque can stop combing the sand for signs now. The Lakers showed that old closers’ mentality, like Goose Gossage standing on the mound, bringing the heat.

They dusted the Minnesota Timberwolves, 101-85, to finish off this first-round series in six games.

That produced a sight that would make anyone in Lakerland happy: a smiling Marge Hearn, striding her way out of Staples Center with a bounce in her step.

“Good win,” she said. “I knew they’d do it.”

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In December there were doubts as to whether the Lakers would get this chance. Once there, they knew how to behave.

In their last two playoff runs, the Lakers were seven for seven when they had a chance to finish a playoff series early.

In the first round of this year’s playoffs, teams all over the league learned the difficulty of that assignment. Three of the four teams presented an opportunity to end series Wednesday found themselves back on a plane for another game.

Of direct interest to the Lakers: Both the San Antonio Spurs and the Sacramento Kings shut down the shop in their first-round series the last two days.

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The Spurs’ victory over Phoenix in Game 6 Thursday means they’ll have the same amount of rest for the conference semifinals with the Lakers that begin Monday. And the Kings sure looked like a team ready to take the next step with the way they dispatched the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

People keep asking the Lakers what kind of messages they might be sending to the rest of the league, but they’re not in the two-way pager business. Everyone knew coming into the playoffs that the road to the championship came through Los Angeles, no matter where the Lakers were seeded.

The Lakers had their own personal interests at stake.

They needed to end this series before Shaquille could step on another official’s foot, the way he did when he rolled his left ankle Thursday on Blane Reichelt.

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They needed to end this series before Derek Fisher could discover any new ways to hurt himself. He got bumped in the thigh with a Kevin Garnett knee on Tuesday, then slammed his head on the court and ran into the press table Thursday night.

And they needed to prove they were compassionate by putting Wally Szczerbiak out of his misery before anything else could go wrong for him.

The only bad thing is that Kevin Garnett is destined to spend the rest of the playoffs at the crib once again. But if he was paying attention, he at least got a good lesson on how to bring down the curtain on a team’s show.

It felt like a tight series even though three of the first five games were double-digit victories. For one thing, the Lakers trailed after three games, only the third time they have been behind in the playoffs since Phil Jackson came to town.

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To make it worse, the Timberwolves’ constant pressure made the simple act of inbounding the ball a challenge at times.

On Thursday the Lakers returned to a more comfortable game, in part because they returned to the premise that forms the base for all of their title aspirations: The duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant can top all challengers.

In the first half they scored 30 of the team’s 47 points and produced eight of 15 assists.

“We take care of business,” Bryant kept saying after Game 5.

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So at the start of Game 6 the Lakers went to O’Neal, who means more business than the Fortune 500.

He scored the Lakers’ first nine points and 11 of their first 21 on five-for-six shooting. He was getting the ball deep, getting the ball on the move, and he had the Timberwolves at his mercy.

Meanwhile, Bryant’s four assists nearly matched his five field goal attempts.

If he strayed at times, he still put far more of the Good Kobe than the Bad Kobe on display, and he turned the start of the fourth quarter into his personal showcase.

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He drained jumpers from both sides of the court, soared to throw down an alley-oop pass from Robert Horry to give him a 10-2 run over the Timberwolves, and he finished with 31 points on 14-for-26 shooting.

“Shaq was dominant in the first half and in the second half Kobe became a dominant force,” Jackson said.

As for O’Neal, he had 24 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists.

At times in this series the Lakers seemed too dependent on O’Neal. Their momentum evaporated when he went to the bench for the final 90 seconds of the first quarter in Game 4.

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And they could manage only four points when he sat out for the first three minutes of the second quarter Thursday night.

Sometimes they miss him even when he’s in the game, as they get preoccupied with jump shots before passing inside.

But if there’s one thing the Lakers gained this series, it’s more confidence for Fisher. It showed Thursday when he missed a three-point attempt, then fired up another one right after Devean George grabbed the rebound and passed it back to him. It went straight through the net.

They weren’t dominant throughout the series.

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“I told this team that Minnesota tested us and we had to improve as a basketball club,” Jackson said.

The Lakers finished strong, though. That’s one category they definitely have down.

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

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