Lakers-Wolves: Thinking man's hoops
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

Raise your hand if 10 days ago you didn't think the Lakers were lucky to have drawn the Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs.

OK, you two guys in the back row had it right, and everybody else had it wrong.

Since then, every single hoop-o-maniac in Sports America knows that, after getting demolished in Game 1, Minnesota won at home in Game 2 and then squeezed out an overtime victory in L.A. Now, the series is tied at 2-2 as it shifts back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes on Tuesday night.

So, what's going on here anyway? The decline and fall of the Laker empire? Or merely a bump on the road to a four-peat?

Although the Lakers rallied late to win crucial Game 4, 102-97, on Sunday night, the results of the series and the Lakers' difficulties remain surprising. I checked into the respective pulses of both teams.

The Timberwolves
Obviously, the Wolves have several reasons to feel good about themselves, not only for winning Games 2 and 3, but also for how they won.
Kevin Garnett
KG has all pistons firing against the champs.
The Wolves insist that from the get-go they were never afraid of the Lakers. Hadn't the two teams split their four regular-season games, which included a Wolves' victory in L.A.? "To get to the top," said one member of the coaching staff, "we knew we'd have to climb over the Lakers anyway. Sooner was just as good as later."

Even so, everybody in the organization credits coach Flip Saunders for reviving his players' spirits after they got thumped in the opening game. By replacing 6-foot-10 Joe Smith in the starting lineup with 6-4 Anthony Peeler, the Wolves suddenly became much quicker up and down the court, and their perimeter defense was greatly improved. The switch also reconfigured the matchups -- instead of the defensively challenged Wally Szczerbiak attempting to guard Kobe Bryant, the task fell to Peeler, and Szczerbiak was left to cope with the limited offensive capabilities of Rick Fox.

With this undersized lineup, Minnesota also has been pressuring the Lakers full court. This has been a crucial strategy, because despite Shaq's awesome power, the Lakers' offense depends on rhythm and timing. Early pressure tends to disrupt the triangle's delicate choreography, and also interferes with the Lakers reading and anticipating one another's movements. The Lakers have countered this maneuver by having Fox carry the ball across halfcourt. "As far as we're concerned," says another member of the Wolves' family, "anything that reduces Kobe's touches is terrific."

Another Lakers' "pressure release" is to bring Shaq to a spot above the foul line where he's an easy target for any pass made under the most extreme duress. The cost to L.A. is that the shot clock is ticking, and by the time that Shaq can retreat into the shadow of the basket and the triangle is properly framed, the Lakers are forced into a hurry-up mode -- a pace they'd rather avoid.

The Lakers used two tactics to nullify the Wolves' fullcourt pressure in Game 4: Throwing long downcourt passes (or "going over the top") -- they did this four times and scored three baskets. And having Kobe single-handedly dribble his way through and around the pressure -- a move which, however, required a tremendous output of energy and which contributed to Bryant's poor shooting stats (7-for-25).

Even when the Lakers solved the extended pressure and lined up their triangle in a timely fashion, the Wolves' next trick was to overplay both wings. L.A.'s halfcourt pressure release requires Shaq to move up to the foul line so that the pivot is vacant and the wings can then make backdoor cuts. "Only one of them can go backdoor at a time," said a Minnesota insider before Game 4, "and the other wing defender just has to hustle to protect the basket. Even if they do score a few buckets this way, Shaq is away from the hoop and in no position to grab any misses. Also, if neither of the wings manages to find an open shot, then Shaq has to reposition himself back in the pivot and, once again, the Lakers are working against a short shot clock."
Kevin Garnett
It's all business for the T'wolves.
In Game 4, however, the Lakers jumped to an early eight-point lead by forcing the ball into Shaq, although when KG and Troy Hudson found the range, the Wolves surged ahead.

In the latter part of the first quarter, the Lakers uncharacteristically two-timed Garnett, sending a guard at him even as the inbound pass was still in the air. This strategy was surprisingly effective for a short period. So too did the Lakers occasionally double-team the ball just past the midcourt line -- the result was a pair of turnovers. Look for both of these moves to be reprised later in the series.

Offensively, the T-Wolves planned more high screen-rolls when Marc Jackson was paired off against Shaq to take advantage of Jackson's long-range shooting prowess and also the Big Fellow's reluctance to play defense away from the basket.

"We've got a business-like attitude," said an assistant before Game 4, "We think we can see a chink in the Lakers' armor. For the first time since Phil Jackson took over the team, there's a lack of cohesion about them, a slight hesitancy to freely trust each other."

For the first three quarters the Lakers continued to have trouble combating the screen and roll, and Hudson lit them up with five 3-balls. Saunders might have erred in keeping Hudson on for too long a stretch late in the third and early in the fourth quarter. Sure, Rod Strickland was playing well, but by the time Hudson re-entered the fray, his touch was long gone.

However, the Wolves never did utilize their high screen and roll when Jackson was matched against Shaq. Too bad, since they went for several long stretches without scoring.

The Lakers
As the defending champs, the Lakers remain convinced that they still control their own destiny. In discussing their abysmal 22-for-36 shooting from the free-throw line in Game 3, one Laker source wryly said this: "Minnesota's foul-line defense was outstanding." Of their dreadful 39 percent shooting from the field: "We had great looks and we missed shots. That's us, not them."
Kobe Bryant
The Lakers hope the Kobe that listens shows up.
Nor were the Lakers either surprised or baffled by Minnesota's fullcourt pressure. "Normally, we invite that kind of stuff, because the defense is so spread out that a few sharp passes usually finds an open shot. Hell, lots of teams play that way against us: Philadelphia, Boston, San Antonio."

At the same time, the Lakers readily concede that the Timberwolves are a potent basketball team. "They have a lot of veteran players," said a longtime member of the organization, "and we expected that they'd be very competitive. They have a tough mental attitude. They're out to show everybody how good they really are and, right now, they do have a swagger about them. And you know something else? There's been a lot of hype in recent years about Kevin Garnett, and that's what most of it's been -- just hype. But this season, he's made huge strides in his game to where he's a legitimate MVP candidate. The point is that we've got a lot of respect for Minnesota, but until somebody beats us, we're still the champs."

Why then have the champs so often played like chumps? "The regular season was tough, because Shaq was out for so long," said the same source, "but also because the league's caught up with us as far as talent is concerned. In the past three years, we've lost guys like Horace Grant and Ron Harper but haven't replaced them with anybody comparable. Instead, we've got Mark Madsen, who hustles but is extremely limited. And we've got Samaki Walker, Stanislav Medvedenko and a pair of rookies, Kareem Rush and Jannero Pargo, none of whom are ready for prime time."

The Lakers are likewise convinced that the energy they had to expend just to make the playoffs (and then to move up to the fifth seed) is taking its toll. "We've got too many players who are getting old in a hurry. The short offseason after winning championships doesn't help them either."

What else? "Shaq has been a through a funeral and a birth in the past week, and he's mentally fatigued," the source prior to Game 4. "Because he's been flying all over the country, he's missed almost every practice session, so he hasn't been particularly sharp. Also, Kobe hurt his shoulder in Game 3, and it does bother him."

And? "Kobe's still a fly in everybody's ointment. Sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn't listen. Most of the time, Kobe just goes his own way. Maybe that's why ever since the first half of Game 1, Kobe is shooting only 31 percent."

To a man, the Lakers pay absolutely no attention to which team has won, lost, and/or regained the homecourt advantage. "We're much too battle-hardened to be intimidated by the prospect of winning important playoff games on the road. Just look at last year's series against the Kings."
Shaquille O'Neal
The Big Aristotle can't seem to think his way out like before.
The only part of Saunders' new game plan that irks the Lakers is the fact that the Wolves are ignoring Robert Horry and challenging him to make open shots. "In Game 3, Robert was shooting blanks, but we want him to keep on shooting. In my book, there's a valid reason why Robert has five championship rings. When the bell rings again, he'll be there."

He wasn't in Game 4, however. Horry continued his horrid shooting (0-for-5 from the perimeter), and down the stretch the Lakers went with Madsen, Brian Shaw (for Derek Fisher), and Devean George (for the injured Fox), proving the flexibility of the coaching staff.

The Lakers didn't adjust much in Game 4 and probably won't for the rest of the series. "You have to understand that the nucleus of this team has been through just about everything. So all we have to do is make our open shots and we'll be back on track. Otherwise, we'll single-cover Garnett just like we do to Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki and the other high-scoring forwards. And we'll continue to use our normal pressure releases. We do need better help and better communication on their screen-rolls and also to contain their quickness. We're also focusing on being sharp right out of the box and putting them to sleep quickly."

In the final analysis, Game 4 was played at the Lakers' preferred pace -- halfcourt, bang-it-out basketball. And while the Lakers made the shots they had to make, the Wolves didn't.

In the afterglow of this most critical game, the Wolves are feeling that they can beat the champs anywhere and at any time. On the other hand, the Lakers feel that they will beat the Wolves whenever they must.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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