|The Minnesota Timberwolves|
Minneapolis, Minn. — (AP) - The Minnesota Timberwolves have a patchwork starting lineup that's missing an All-Star, and they're making up their offensive schemes on the fly in the Western Conference finals.
Still, as long as Kevin Garnett is in the middle of this chaos, the Wolves believe they've got a shot at an improbable comeback.
After a 98-96 victory in Game 5 Saturday night, Minnesota packed its bags for another trip to Los Angeles and another potential elimination game. Point guard Sam Cassell won't play in Game 6 Monday night, missing his second straight game with back spasms and an injured hip.
But after ending the Lakers' streak of 12 straight victories in elimination games, the Timberwolves put the pressure back on Los Angeles to close it out. Nobody gives Minnesota much of a shot in Game 6, and the Timberwolves will play without the burden of expectations - and Garnett, who's been brilliant throughout the playoffs, just might have another spectacular game in him.
"That's what it's all about, is a chance to prove everybody wrong," Wally Szczerbiak said Sunday.
Only seven teams recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a series, and only 17 even forced a seventh game. The Timberwolves won at Staples Center on Jan. 30, but they've won just three times in Los Angeles since Dec. 5, 1993.
One of those victories was an overtime win in Game 3 of the teams' first-round playoff series last season. The Lakers won the next three games of that series - but if the Timberwolves' season ends in Los Angeles for the second straight spring, they hope to go down in a style befitting the best season in franchise history.
"You don't want it to end, because it's fun," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said Sunday. "What's fun is seeing the excitement around town. When we played Game 7 (against Sacramento), I told my wife it's almost like we've got to win, because we'll let down the whole town."
But the Wolves won't see many friendly faces in Los Angeles, where another Hollywood crowd will turn out expecting the Lakers' advancement to their fourth NBA Finals in five seasons. Minnesota didn't handle the pressure well in the first two games at Staples Center, falling behind early and staying there.
Garnett's supporting cast was little help in the Timberwolves' earlier losses in Los Angeles, making less than 40 percent of its shots. Latrell Sprewell was 11-for-35 in the two games, while Szczerbiak scored 40 of the Timberwolves' 55 bench points.
Cassell scored 18 points in Game 3, but played just five minutes in Game 4. He didn't even dress for Minnesota's home victory Saturday night, and he already has been ruled out for Monday.
You don't want it to end, because it's fun.
"It's killing me, personally, knowing what I can do for us against the Lakers," Cassell said. "I feel sorry for Freddy (Hoiberg) when he's got to do my job."
Hoiberg played 38 minutes in Game 5, mostly as a surrogate point guard when Darrick Martin was ineffective again. Though Hoiberg scored 14 points and hit the biggest shot - a double-clutch jumper while being fouled with 2:29 left - he's still a pure shooter who hates bringing the ball upcourt.
"I couldn't dribble and chew gum at the same time coming out of college," he said. "And then I've got the best full-court defender in the league (Derek Fisher), in my opinion, picking me up and pressuring me."
While Minnesota improvised well, the Lakers strayed from their usual formula for success. Shaquille O'Neal went nearly 24 minutes between field goals, while Bryant seemed to be forcing the action against tight defense.
The Timberwolves successfully used a small lineup during portions of Game 5, playing Szczerbiak as a power forward - and though he's just 6-foot-7, the 240-pounder is tough enough to guard Karl Malone. That lineup presents matchup problems for the Lakers, forcing O'Neal to the perimeter to guard Garnett.
Saunders believes the series has been decided by the contributions of role players, but an early lead also helps. Both teams have played extremely well with leads in the series: There hasn't been a single lead change in the final 22 minutes of any game in the conference finals.
"When you have the Lakers playing catch-up, that's good," Szczerbiak said. "You get Shaq thinking a little more about his free throws. You get Kobe holding the ball a little longer and not getting it around the perimeter as much."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)