It ended as the Lakers assumed it would, give or take a game, give or take a heavy sweat.
They eliminated the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night at Staples Center, by 101-85 in the series’ sixth game, and so advanced to the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
Game 1 is Monday night in San Antonio, against a team that swept them in the regular season, a team they eliminated in best-of-seven series in each of the last two postseasons, in a total of nine games.
Kobe Bryant scored 31 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, and Shaquille O’Neal had 24 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists, that close to his second career triple-double. On their way to the next round, the Lakers all but thanked the Timberwolves for their effort, for what they drew from them at the conclusion of a so-so regular season.
“I told the team after this game that Minnesota tested them,” Coach Phil Jackson said. “They had to improve as a basketball club. And they have to make strides toward improving if we’re going to continue to win in this playoff realm this year. Our next series is going to be very difficult, and we know it.”
Playing for their fourth consecutive NBA title, and three series short of that, the Lakers won their 13th consecutive series. Jackson, who has presided over three-peats in Chicago and Los Angeles, won his 25th in a row.
They won the final three games in a series that looked, for them, dicey, when the Timberwolves stood with a two-games-to-one lead, the Lakers with no evidence their jump shots would fall or their defense would square itself. Along the way, they lost starting forward Rick Fox to a season-ending injury, and Bryant rubbed his sore right shoulder. And yet, they rushed into the fourth quarter in Game 6, Bryant scored 12 points in an 18-2 run, and all of that was forgotten in the plans for San Antonio, the West’s top-seeded team.
“We got better as we went along,” Brian Shaw said. “We made adjustments. We showed that when they did some things that bothered us, we were able to remedy that and get back to our execution. I think that our defense really improved along the way.”
Bryant averaged 31.8 points and 6.7 assists in the series, despite a jump shot that came and went. O’Neal averaged 28.7 points and 15.3 rebounds, despite triple-teams that engulfed him even before the Lakers threw him the basketball.
The Lakers actually grew into this series, the fifth-seeded team against the fourth.
“We had an unfortunate loss [in Game 3, in overtime] last Thursday, one we thought we shot ourselves in the foot,” Jackson said. “We knew we had to get better as a basketball club. It’s not easy to turn that momentum around. Minnesota had it. We saw something in that game that gave us a feel that we could play better and we could mastermind the rest of this series, as far as angles, way to break down pressure, and defensively how to get stronger. Our defense is what stepped up the last two games.”
The Timberwolves’ playoff history, meanwhile, remains intact: They have never advanced out of the first round, seven years running, and Kevin Garnett will bear the weight of it.
He scored 18 points and took 12 rebounds, he and Troy Hudson having carried the Timberwolves as long as they could. Together, they lugged a franchise whose postseason ended, perhaps, on the last day of the regular season, when the opening-round playoff pairings were established.
They led the series. Garnett, possibly the MVP of the league, was playing well. He brought Hudson along with him, but Wally Szczerbiak was a bust, and there wasn’t much from the front line, and there was nothing any of them could do with O’Neal.
Not a week ago, he had said the Lakers were on the ropes, and no one disagreed. Garnett laid most of it at O’Neal’s feet.
“Everything went through the monster, so to speak,” Garnett said, “and it was over.
“I think we tested them a little bit. I think we got under their skin a little bit. But they prevailed.”
The five Laker starters scored in double figures.
The Lakers won their 10th consecutive game in which they could eliminate their opponent, starting with the Indiana Pacers three NBA Finals ago.
They’d won close and won big, in foreign gyms and at home, and there has been a sense that they’d developed a foot-on-neck knack.
Bryant scored the first six times he touched the ball in the fourth quarter, a couple of signature turn-arounds, two dunks with his feet tucked beneath him, a pull-up jumper over Kendall Gill, those sorts of things, and the series the Timberwolves made competitive was nearly gone.
“I made a conscious effort to try to be more aggressive,” Bryant said.
“We didn’t close the third quarter very well. It was important to start the fourth quarter and establish momentum.”
Nearly six minutes into the last quarter, the Timberwolves still hadn’t made a field goal in the period, and the Lakers had scored 18 points, and everyone’s head turned toward San Antonio and Tim Duncan.
“We have to go up against another dominant forward,” O’Neal said. “He’s going to get his numbers. We’ll just have to shut everybody else down. I’m not worried at all, because games that we lost, it’s not what teams are doing to us, it’s what we were doing to ourselves. This is a totally different year and we still have work to do.”