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The Stars Are Finally Aligned as Lakers Reach NBA Finals

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Times Staff Writer

Showing flashes of defensive brilliance but also glaring weaknesses at the free-throw line, the much-hyped, much-troubled Lakers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night at Staples Center, 96-90, to advance to the National Basketball Assn.’s championship round, where they will be favored to capture their fourth title in five years.

The hard-fought victory, in a game marked by early fouls to stars of both teams, demonstrated the new resolve and physical dominance of the Lakers, who eliminated one of the NBA’s best teams, four games to two. In the previous playoff round, they ousted the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, also in six games.

Since trailing the Spurs two games to none, the Lakers have displayed some of their most tenacious basketball of the year in winning eight of their last 10 games, gilding their reputation as a talented team that can turn it on during playoff runs.

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The Lakers will play for the championship in a best-of-seven series against either the Detroit Pistons or Indiana Pacers, beginning Sunday. Detroit leads Indiana, three games to two, in a battle for the Eastern Conference championship. The Lakers would hold the home-court advantage over the Pistons because of a superior regular-season record, but would cede that edge if Indiana, with the league’s top win-loss mark, rallied to make the Finals.

Under Coach Phil Jackson, who won championships in his first three seasons in Los Angeles, the Lakers have shown an ability to bear down and smother opponents with a swarming defense anchored by 7-foot-1, 340-pound Shaquille O’Neal. On Monday, the Lakers applied heavy defensive pressure throughout the final period and received a lift from the long-range sharpshooting of reserve guard Kareem Rush to overcome a 68-67 third-quarter deficit and push their lead to 11 near the end.

The Lakers used two and three men to crowd the league’s Most Valuable Player, Kevin Garnett, a 6-foot-11 forward who carried the Timberwolves to their best season ever with his scoring, rebounding and abilities to pass and handle the ball.

Garnett led a spirited Timberwolves victory in Minneapolis in Game 5, totaling 30 points and 19 rebounds, but he picked up two quick fouls Monday and played little more than half of the first quarter.

He led a Minnesota surge during the second and third quarters and finished with another strong game -- 22 points and 17 rebounds -- but the Lakers ultimately wore down the Timberwolves and showed too much firepower from O’Neal, Rush and Kobe Bryant.

O’Neal, hampered by foul trouble, scored 25 points despite missing 13 of 20 free throws, and he grabbed 11 rebounds. Bryant, who missed much of the second quarter after picking up his third foul, scored 20 points, and Rush produced one of his best games ever, hitting six of eight shots for 18 points. His three-pointer early in the fourth quarter gave the Lakers a 71-68 lead that they never relinquished.

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The Timberwolves hit 24 of 26 free throws, compared with the Lakers’ woeful 17 of 36.

“The stat that stands out, [the Timberwolves] had 19 turnovers as opposed to six in the last game, and we got 33 points against those turnovers,” said Jackson, who credited Lakers forward Karl Malone for grabbing a lot of loose balls that led to scores.

“We started that ballgame with tremendous energy,” Jackson said. “We had the energy we wanted to have.”

Despite occasional lapses and periods of poor shooting, including a stretch in Game 5 in Minnesota in which they were outscored 17-0, the Lakers have played with heightened intensity and effectiveness since the playoffs began a month ago. They have rebounded more aggressively, worked harder on defense, and displayed signs on offense of finally fusing the talents of their four superstars -- O’Neal, Bryant, Malone and Gary Payton.

Payton and Malone, signed to contracts last summer, were unable to turn the Lakers into the juggernaut they were expected to be during the regular season. Payton struggled to fit into Jackson’s offensive scheme and groused about his reduced playing time while sharing the point-guard position with last year’s starter, Derek Fisher. Malone missed nearly half the year with a knee injury after the Lakers won 18 of their first 21 games.

Only Bryant was able to shine through much of the year, despite the sexual assault case proceeding against him and multiple trips to Eagle, Colo., for pretrial hearings. Expectations that the star-studded Lakers might set a record for victories fizzled into an up-and-down campaign that nonetheless included a Pacific Division title.

With their resurgence in the playoffs, long-simmering talk about what’s wrong with the Lakers has given way to a new question: Can anybody beat them?

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“We feel very comfortable,” Jackson said. “The pressure’s on us, obviously, to try and go do something unique” by winning four times in five years.

Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders conceded his team struggled to find energy after a difficult series against Sacramento, but credited the Lakers for asserting themselves when they chose to.

“There’s no question the game they were the most intense in were the first game and the sixth game,” he said, referring to the crucial opener and the clincher. “They wanted to set the tone and they were extremely aggressive in both of those games.”

The Lakers met both Detroit and Indiana twice during the regular season, finishing 1-1 against each, but few regard the regular season as a reliable barometer of the Lakers’ chances in the Finals.

The NBA’s strongest teams are concentrated in the Western Conference. No team from the East has won a title since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1998, the team’s sixth under Jackson, before he became coach of the Lakers.

The Timberwolves, who won two more games than the Lakers during the regular season and were seeded first among Western Conference playoff teams, outplayed the Lakers twice during the series, each time at home. The Timberwolves already trailed by a game when they routed the Lakers in a physical Game 2, holding Los Angeles to 71 points -- only the second time the Lakers have been limited to so few points in a playoff game.

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“We weren’t desperate,” Bryant said after Game 2. “They played harder, and we weren’t able to match their intensity.”

That changed during Games 3 and 4 at Staples, when the Lakers all but put the series away.

O’Neal’s rebounding was a major difference. Although he averaged well below league leader Garnett during the regular season, O’Neal showed a new-found explosiveness, soaring for caroms that Garnett couldn’t reach. O’Neal out-rebounded Garnett 17 to 11 in Game 3 and 19 to 13 in Game 4.

Game 4 was pivotal because the Lakers’ triumph prevented Minnesota from returning home with the series tied. Bryant led all scorers with 31 points, including 18 in a decisive third quarter. Afterward, a weary-looking Garnett, his head lowered, seemed to sense that the Timberwolves’ season was nearing an end.

“I just feel like you cannot be down 3-1 to the Lakers,” he said at a post-game news conference.

Minnesota played valiantly in beating the Lakers in Game 5, overcoming an early 20-10 deficit on the strength of big games by Garnett and Latrell Sprewell.

Like other teams in the West, Minnesota had tried to bring in more talent to counter the Lakers’ signing of Payton and Malone. The Timberwolves added Sprewell as well as Sam Cassell, a quick, good-shooting guard, and center Michael Olowokandi to complement Garnett and outside shooters Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak.

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But they were not enough.

When asked about leading a team into the Finals for the 10th time in his coaching career, Jackson expressed quiet confidence in the Lakers to handle whomever they meet.

“We feel very fortunate to be able to go into it -- we know it takes a lot to get there,” he said. “Now we just have to parlay that [effort] into a championship.... We’ll sit and watch the two teams play tomorrow and make adjustments as we go through this week, rest our players and get ready.”

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