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Unlikely star sends Lakers past Wolves and into Finals

LAKERS 96, WOLVES 90: Sub Kareem Rush scores 18, all on 3-pointers.

By Associated Press
Published June 1, 2004

LOS ANGELES - The Lakers never make it easy. They just keep winning - and they've made it back to the NBA Finals.

Shaquille O'Neal had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Kareem Rush came from nowhere to hit six 3-pointers in Los Angeles' 96-90 victory over the Timberwolves in Game 6 of the West final Monday night.

Kobe Bryant scored 20 for the Lakers, who overcame Kevin Garnett, their constant bickering with the referees and O'Neal's 7-for-20 free-throw shooting.

Their fourth trip to the NBA's championship round in five seasons begins Sunday. Detroit, leading the East final 3-2, will visit Los Angeles if the Pistons finish off the Pacers tonight.

The Lakers improved to 9-0 at Staples Center in the postseason, but Garnett and the Timberwolves spent most of the game on the verge of an improbable upset.

Unbowed by the Lakers' nine championship banners and intimidating home crowd, the Timberwolves played tight defense and made enough free throws to take a lead into the fourth quarter. But Bryant and Rush led a 15-6 run early in the quarter, and Slava Medvedenko added two critical baskets in the final minutes.

Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who signed with the Lakers last summer for a chance at their first NBA title, joined their teammates in a group hug near the bench before accepting the conference championship trophy.

Latrell Sprewell scored 27, and Garnett, who fouled out, had 22 points and 17 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who nearly extended the best season in franchise history to a Game 7 in Minneapolis.

Instead, Minnesota's first trip to the conference final ended when it couldn't score enough to overcome the absence of injured All-Star Sam Cassell.

Bryant, O'Neal and Garnett all got in first-half foul trouble in a tightly officiated game. O'Neal sat on the bench for 41/2 minutes in the fourth quarter after picking up his fifth foul, and Malone also got five fouls trying to stay with Garnett.

But Rush, the second-year guard who had 11 points in the entire series, made shot after shot from the perimeter. His 3-pointer with 3:22 to play gave Los Angeles a 10-point lead and sent the crowd into pandemonium.

FISHER PLAYS: Lakers guard Derek Fisher played Monday night despite a knee injury that clouded his availability right up until tipoff.

Fisher aggravated a sprain of his right medial collateral ligament in the final minute of Saturday's game at Minnesota, but the injury was not disclosed until Monday afternoon. An MRI taken Sunday revealed the injury. The Lakers believe it is an aggravation of an MCL sprain Fisher originally suffered in college.

Fisher warmed up on the court about 75 minutes before tipoff, then received treatment until game time. He did not wear a brace or sleeve over the knee.

"We knew about it immediately when it happened (Saturday). But the severity of it, we didn't know," coach Phil Jackson said before the game.

Fisher checked in with 2:46 left in the first quarter and played 11 scoreless minutes in the first half.

Asked if he might need to alter Fisher's responsibilities, Jackson said, "I'll have him guard Sam Cassell."

Cassell sat out his second straight game because of back spasms.

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 01:00:29]


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