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They’ve Fallen, May Not Get Up

Times Staff Writer

If misery loves company, the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves are in for a treat tonight at Staples Center.

Ten months after squaring off in the Western Conference finals last May, they’re hoping just to avoid missing the playoffs this time around, the Lakers for the first time in 11 years and the Timberwolves for the first time in nine, or ever since Kevin Garnett was a rookie out of Chicago’s Farragut Academy.

With only three weeks left in the regular season, the Timberwolves are ninth in the West, 2 1/2 games behind the eighth-place Denver Nuggets, and the Lakers are 10th, six games out and two games ahead of the Clippers.

Never before in NBA history have two teams that met in the conference finals one season failed to make the playoffs the next, so the Lakers and Timberwolves are working on something historical, if not hysterical.

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“It’s amazing how things change,” Laker Coach Frank Hamblen said Wednesday, the Lakers’ eight-game losing streak having ended less than 24 hours earlier. “We redid our team and they didn’t. But it’s still amazing. They’re playing very good right now ... but they’ve had one of those seasons.”

Unlike the Lakers, the Timberwolves mostly kept their roster intact. They’ve been derailed by contract squabbles, injuries and chemistry issues, resulting in a midseason coaching change from Flip Saunders to Kevin McHale.

“I’m surprised about how they’ve struggled,” said Kobe Bryant, signing basketballs while fielding questions. “They’ve had a lot of drama up there. I feel bad for KG because I know how hard he works and how bad he wants to win.”

Of the Lakers’ struggles, Bryant said, “We knew the situation we had ahead of ourselves. The thing that we couldn’t predict, though, was all the injuries and the coaching change and stuff like that. But we knew we had a young team and we were going to be in for a tough year. It’s just about getting back up to the top.”

Or, first things first, back up to eighth place in the West.

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Bryant inquires frequently about the health of his coach, who last week said the Lakers were “starting to erode my immune system.”

“He’s been an assistant coach for 35 years and this isn’t something that he really wanted to do,” Bryant said. “But he did it out of respect for the organization and for us, the players. And so I worry about him, man. I put my arm around him just to check him, just to see how he’s doing, try to encourage him.”

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Said Hamblen: “It’s not an ideal climate, certainly, but somebody had to do it and I guess I was the one picked to do it.”

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The Lakers would be only the seventh team in NBA history to fail to make the playoffs after reaching the NBA Finals the previous season.


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