Minneapolis, Minn. — In each of the last six years, the Timberwolves have been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. But this year is different. Different because their team record 51 regular-season victories earned them the right to start the playoffs in their own arena. And different because this time they're facing Lakers, winners of the last three NBA championships.
The Lakers got off to a terrible start this season, but recovered sufficiently to earn the number-five seed in the playoffs.
Opening a playoff series on the road is an unfamiliar position for the champions, but it didn't seem to faze them. Barely five minutes into the game they had opened up a nine-point lead and they extended that to 20 points in the second quarter.
Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders says his team just fell too far behind to catch the Lakers.
"When you fall behind as much as we did -- by 16 -- it's tough to get the crowd into the game at that point. And we never got them to the point that they really felt any pressure," Saunders said.
The Lakers stayed calm because the score put all the pressure on the Timberwolves, who never held the lead.
Minnesota's star player, Kevin Garnett, was surprised by the team's flat start.
"I actually thought we were going to be a lot more geeked up, so to speak. But we sort of played back a little bit. The second half, I felt like we did a better job of putting pressure on the ball and being a lot more active on the defensive end," he said.
Coach Saunders agreed that defense was Minnesota's main shortcoming. Then again, the Lakers have a tendency to make their opponents look bad on defense.
The biggest piece of the Laker offense is 7-foot-1 and 338 pounds. Shaquille O'Neal's size and strength make him the game's most dominant player, even when he doesn't score. As defenses converge on O'Neal, other Laker players find themselves with open shots.
Timberwolves guard Troy Hudson says the Wolves never expected the Lakers would make as many of those shots as they did.
"We did our job of trapping Shaq and Kobe and making them get rid of the ball. And when they got rid of it, their teammates were knocking down shots. But that was our game plan, we had to stick with it. They're not going to shoot like that the whole series, I hope not. But we just have to stick with our game plan," Hudson said.
Packing the defense around O'Neal also gave Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' other superstar, more room to manuever. By halftime Bryant had scored 28 points, which more than doubled any other player.
During the halftime break Minnesota licked its wounds and revised its defensive strategy, asking Wally Szczerbiak to shadow Bryant from one end of the court to the other.
"I was really paying attention and denying Kobe the whole time. No matter what, 94 feet. We didn't come in with a plan to do that at the beginning of the game because everyone was so conscious of Shaq. And in the second half, I was just really conscious of Kobe because he had really gotten it going," he said.
The defensive change paid off and the Timberwolves shaved their 20-point deficit down to four. But in the fourth quarter O'Neal broke loose for 12 points, helping the Lakers pull away to a convincing victory.
Guard Rod Strickland says the Timberwolves cannot afford to dig another hole for themselves when they take the court for game two.
"We've just got to come out aggressive from the beginning. In the beginning of this game I don't think we were as aggressive as we should have been or we could have been. And Kobe, we didn't get up on him and he got that feeling and he got it going. And it's tough once a great player like that gets it going," Strickland said.
This was the Lakers' first playoff game in Minnesota since the team moved away from Minneapolis 43 years ago. The Minneapolis Lakers won five NBA championships in six years during the 1940s and '50s.