Times Staff Writer
WOLVES 98, LAKERS 96: His strong performance helps Minnesota avoid elimination in West.
MINNEAPOLIS - Kevin Garnett's survival instinct was stronger than the Lakers' finishing touch.
Garnett had 30 points and 19 rebounds, and the Timberwolves avoided elimination from the Western Conference final with a 98-96 victory over Los Angeles in Game 5 Saturday night.
Latrell Sprewell scored 28 and Fred Hoiberg added 14 for the Timberwolves, who prevented the Lakers from winning a potential series-ending game for the first time since Game 5 of the 2000 NBA Finals.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had won their last 12 clinchers, but the Timberwolves avoided their first three-game losing streak of the season. A raucous home crowd cheered another draining performance by Garnett, who played every position and sat out for just 21/2 minutes.
Garnett also hit five free throws in the final 2:04 as Minnesota held on to a small lead. Derek Fisher hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score close.
Bryant scored 23, and Karl Malone and Fisher added 17 apiece for the Lakers, who hold a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Los Angeles on Monday night.
Only seven teams in NBA history have recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, and the Lakers have never blown such a lead.
Before fouling out with 5.3 seconds left, O'Neal scored 17 on just 11 shots.
It was a strange game all around for the Lakers, who were extraordinarily loose before the game - coach Phil Jackson even said his team was "giddy."
But the Lakers lost their focus late in the first half and allowed 17 straight points by Minnesota. The Lakers fell behind 86-70 in the fourth quarter before scoring 10 in a row and causing grumbling in the crowd, but Hoiberg hit a difficult jumper while being fouled by Bryant with 2:29 left. Garnett did the rest with his ball-handling and free throws.
"We know we play well at home," Garnett said. "That's where we have a lot of confidence. We came out with energy and forced the action."
Injured All-Star Sam Cassell didn't suit up for the Timberwolves, but Hoiberg and Wally Szczerbiak hit big outside shots - and Sprewell overcame his shooting struggles for his biggest game of the series.
While the Lakers perhaps were a bit too loose, the Timberwolves appeared to sense the urgency of an elimination game. They fell behind early and trailed 40-33 - but the game abruptly shifted when Minnesota scored the final 13 of the first half in just 31/2 minutes.
The Timberwolves then scored the first two baskets of the second half to take a 10-point lead. Los Angeles' last-minute rally began too late - but the Lakers' 54 percent free-throw shooting also influenced the outcome.
Garnett went 10-for-11 on free throws and even had four assists. While taking his only rest in the fourth quarter, Cassell fanned him with a towel.
Cassell's back spasms have rendered him nearly useless in the series, and the injuries only get worse while he attempts to play through them. He barely participated in practice in recent days, and he walked out to the Timberwolves' bench wearing a pink dress shirt shortly after Darrick Martin was announced as his starting replacement.
Coach Flip Saunders made two changes to his lineup, also starting Michael Olowokandi in place of center Ervin Johnson. Saunders hoped to get more scoring from his big men in the series, but the duo combined with Mark Madsen to score just seven points.
NOTES: Cassell sat out for just the second time in the Timberwolves' 99 games this season. ... The Timberwolves set a franchise record with 20,109 fans. ... Johnson had started all the Timberwolves' previous 16 playoff games.