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Weary Wolves prepare to face Lakers
Updated: 2004-05-21 09:00

Though the Minnesota Timberwolves have homecourt advantage in the Western Conference finals, it's hard to consider them a favorite against the well-rested, more experienced and supremely confident Los Angeles Lakers.

Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Garnett celebrates after the Timberwolves beat the Sacramento Kings 83-80 in Game 7 to clinch the NBA Western Conference semifinals at Target Center, Minneapolis, May 19, 2004. Garnett finished with 32 points. Minnesota advances to the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. [Reuters]

"We understand that people aren't giving us a chance, but that's what we like," said Minnesota's Sam Cassell. "People didn't give us a chance to get the No. 1 seed in the West, either."

There's been no time for the Timberwolves to revel in their first successful playoff run. Hours after defeating Sacramento to complete a draining, seven-game semifinal series, the Wolves began preparing for Friday's Game 1.

"We've been through a lot," said Kevin Garnett, who had all six of Minnesota's fourth-quarter field goals and scored 14 of his 32 points in the final period of Wednesday night's 83-80 victory.

"It's great for the organization," Garnett said. "The city's pumped up."

After their record seventh straight first-round elimination, the Wolves completely overhauled their roster last summer, acquiring Cassell and Latrell Sprewell in trades and signing free agents Michael Olowokandi, Mark Madsen and Fred Hoiberg.

The Lakers retooled, too, after their streak of three straight NBA titles ended with a second-round loss to eventual champion San Antonio. Los Angeles said goodbye to Madsen and Robert Horry and signed free agents Karl Malone and Gary Payton to make a run at another ring.

"We're in a very good position," Kobe Bryant said Thursday. "We're ready to go."

There are plenty of big names and intriguing story lines in this series, starting with the Lakers' resurgence after a trying season filled with injuries, locker-room squabbles and courtroom appearances by Bryant in Colorado, where he is accused of rape.

After losing the opening two games of their semifinal series against the Spurs, they snapped back to life with four straight wins — the third coming on Derek Fisher's amazing buzzer-beater off an inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds remaining.

Los Angeles began playing stifling defense, shutting down Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and holding the Spurs to an average of 80 points over the final four games.

"It was a good test of our character, to go down 2-0 and win," Bryant said.

The Lakers have been off since Saturday, so they ought to open this series with plenty of energy. The Wolves could be worn out, especially with Cassell, their point guard, hobbled by a bad back and hip.

"They put their all into the (Sacramento) series, and now they've got to get going again," Los Angeles forward Devean George said. "We're going to go in there with rested legs and try to take advantage of it."

Olowokandi, signed specifically to help Minnesota compete with opponents such as the Lakers, has been a bust so far. He played only three minutes over the last four games against the Kings, but coach Flip Saunders said Olowokandi will play against Los Angeles and Shaquille O'Neal.

"Shaq will be the thrust and focus of our offense," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

Madsen played the last three seasons for the Lakers, and he frequently guarded O'Neal in practice.

"I learned one thing in those three years against Shaq," Madsen said. "He's unstoppable. ... You can only hope to slow him down, and that's going to require two, three, sometimes a fourth defender."

The Timberwolves will undoubtedly play plenty of zone defense, daring the Lakers to beat them from outside. Trenton Hassell, who shut down Carmelo Anthony and Peja Stojakovic in the first two rounds, will likely get the defensive assignment on Bryant.

"I'm probably not going to get much help," Hassell said. "I think in order to stop them, you've got to stop their monsters down low."

With only one day off between games, Cassell's back is probably not going to get much better until the summer. He said he's prepared to do whatever he can to help out.

"Our guns have got to be loaded," said Cassell, who quickly recalled the criticism Garnett took for using weapon metaphors earlier in the week. "I mean our basketballs are going to be loaded. I've got to clarify things these days."

This much is clear: The Wolves have a tough task.

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