Lakers celebrate winning 2004 Western Conference
(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Lakers-Wolves, 2004 WCF Game 6: Retro Running Diary

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

Like the Lakers, I come from Minnesota.

Growing up in the 1980’s, there was no NBA team in town, so I rooted for Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. But then the NBA expanded prior to the 1989-90 season, and Minnesota was given the Timberwolves, whose first truly elite season didn’t come until many years later, 2003-04, my senior year in college, when Kevin Garnett finally got some help in the form of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.

Meanwhile, the Lakers had dominated my first three years of school, threepeating as Kobe and Shaq established themselves as the most dominant duo in NBA history – or at least the one that could win a good argument with Magic and Kareem, or Michael and Scottie.

Many were surprised that the Wolves (58-24) had earned the No. 1 seed in the West, besting the No. 2 Lakers (56-22) by two games. L.A. had handled Houston 4-1 in Round 1, before the Spurs took them to Game 6 in Round 2. The Wolves beat Denver 4-1, and then outlasted Sacramento in a tough 7-game series, their reward being the 3-time champion Lakers, who’d added Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

Starting for the Lakers: Payton, Kobe, Devean George, Malone and Shaq; Minnesota: Darrick Martin*, Latrell Sprewell, Trenton Hassell, Kevin Garnett and Michael Olowokandi.
*Cassell had an injured hip, and was able to start only three of six games, missing the final two. Former Wolves coach Flip Saunders would later say that Cassell hurt the hip doing his onions celebration during the Kings’ series. Regardless, it was a big problem for Minny, with KG often having to play point guard.

Let’s get to the game.

FIRST QUARTER
11:41: PXP legend Marv Albert, during the starting lineup rundown just before tip, mentioned that Kobe was “not a factor in the second half of Game 5” (Bryant finished with 23 points on 8 of 19 FG’s in LAL’s 98-96 loss). So, of course, Kobe opened Game 6 with ridiculous hammer dunk on Olowokandi.

8:55: Malone attacked the rim and scored with a pretty little baby hook over KG, then stripped KG on defense, starting a break that Kobe finished with an and-1 layup to put LAL up 7-4 early. Longtime Lakers folk will tell you that Malone’s injury was among the biggest factors in their losing to the Pistons in the Finals. Texted our Kevin Ding, who covered the series for the Orange County Register:

“Karl was a unifying, solidifying force on a team that wasn’t the strongest in chemistry at that point. But the Lakers also were too light on defensive activity and way light on triangle-offense execution then.”

Malone averaged 13.2 points on 48.3 percent FG’s with 8.7 boards, 3.9 assists and 1.4 steals that season at age 40.

5:57: Olowokandi managed a big dunk with his left hand to a just-late arriving Shaq … who didn’t like that so much. You won’t be surprised to learn that Shaq immediately backed his fellow former No. 1 overall pick down and nearly dunked on him, drawing a PF. Later in the first, Shaq massacred Ervin Johnson with an and-1 dunk to put LAL up 20-13. The early problem for Minnesota: KG picked up 2 PF’s and had to sit. The MVP that season, they needed him on both ends more than any team needed any player.

1:42: Two-time Lakers champion Mark Madsen had checked in for the Wolves moments earlier, and the TNT cameras caught Kobe (likely) trash talking Mad Dog during some FT’s. Mad Dog was barking back!

0:28.0: Lakers sub Kareem Rush had also checked in moments earlier, canning his second triple in the final three minutes to help LAL to a 28-17 lead after one. The Wolves really had difficulty creating good shots without a point guard on the floor, and the Lakers buckled down defensively, with Kobe, George and Payton all very active on the perimeter, and Shaq holding down the rim. Bryant had 10 points to lead all scorers.

SECOND QUARTER
9:44: Kobe was whistled for his 3rd PF really early in the 2nd Q, digging down to try and help on KG, and had to sit.

6:44: Payton’s 3 snapped an extended 15-5 Wolves run that had them within as few as three at 33-30 as they took advantage of Kobe’s absence and enjoyed KG’s return to the court, but the real highlight was seeing Flip run directly into Jack Nicholson, who was on the court protesting a call (or cheering … couldn’t really tell). Jack seemed to be enjoying watching Shaq toy with Wolves third-string center Oliver Miller.

1:16: The third Rush triple put LAL up 48-42, though Minnesota scored the final four points of the half on two Sprewell FT’s, plus a Hoiberg layup, trimming the margin to two. Meanwhile, Shaq picked up his fourth PF with 1:01 left in the quarter, which was a worry heading into the third quarter, especially on top of Kobe’s foul trouble.

THIRD QUARTER
8:08: The Lakers, holding as much as a 15-point lead in the 1st Q, suddenly found themselves trailing by four at 56-52 after a dunk from KG off his own offensive board of a Sprewell missed three. Kobe and Shaq were a bit tentative due to their respective foul trouble, and Minnesota took advantage. The pressure was mounting a bit, with a potential Game 7 to be held back in Minnesota … but LAL had been through many situations like this in their run.

5:42: Kobe converted a beautiful hanging layup through traffic to tie it at 58, with three Wolves converging to no effect. For me, there’s never been a better tough-shot maker than Kobe in NBA history (with Jordan right there in the conversation). He could get to every single spot on the floor thanks to his superior footwork and handle, and score from every single angle once he got there.

2:28: Shortly after replacing George, also with foul trouble, Derek Fisher hit his only FG of the game, a three that cut Minnesota’s lead back to one at 64-63. Fish missed his other six shots that night, but managed six assists, four boards and a steal in his 26 bench minutes, and finished a team-best +11 on the evening. Fish would go on to have so many clutch games for LAL … my two favorites were both Finals games I was lucky to cover in person: 1) Game 4 at ORL in 2009, when he buried the triple with 4.6 seconds to play to force OT, then another with 31 seconds left in OT to put LAL up three; 2) Game 3 at BOS in 2010, when he scored 11 points on 5 of 7 FG’s in the 4th Q to lead LAL to a win that got them home-court advantage back after they’d lost Game 2 at home. That and-1 layup tho…

0:00.6: The Glove, who had an uneven year trying to fit into the triangle in his lone season in Los Angeles, beat the buzzer by putting back his own miss to get the Lakers within one after three. KG’s eight points, four boards and two blocks in the 3rd and a quiet Kobe (two points on 1 of 5 FG’s) helped Minnesota to a 22-19 edge.

FOURTH QUARTER
9:16: Scoring was at a premium in this series. Only once in six games did either team hit the 100 mark, and that was LAL in a 100-89 Game 3 victory. But in this 4th Q, both Kobe and Rush would get going to give the home team the needed edge. Bryant’s drop-off assist to Malone, then strip of Sprewell and ensuing floater on the other end put LAL up 75-70. However, Shaq then picked up his 5th PF, and both Malone and Kobe got arguing techs at the 7:48 mark to help the Wolves get back within three.

6:51: Of course, Kobe responded with an aggressive drive to the rim for a layup off a crossover dribble and blow-by move on the perimeter. Less expected was yet another three from Rush, his 5th of the night, in as many attempts. Rush only hit 48 threes that season, on 34.8 percent, hitting 0.7 per game in the 72 in which he appeared. Six was an explosion in 2004, whereas now, it’s routine. For the game, MIN was 2 for 9, and LAL 9 for 21 from 3.

3:24: The Lakers had four Hall of Famers on their roster. And yet, in Minnesota, Game 6 is known as the Kareem Rush game. His sixth triple of the night put the Lakers up 89-79, the final dagger. The career night for the second-year player out of Missouri was more than the Wolves could handle.

0:11.7: The last three minutes were mostly composed of FT shooting for the Lakers, with Kobe’s last one making it 96-87. Hassell got a three to fall with 2.6 seconds left, and that was that. Minnesota’s best season ever ended, while the Lakers would go to yet another NBA Finals, a place they know better than anybody. LAL have been to the Finals 31 times, 10 more than Boston, and 20 more than the Philadelphia/San Francisco/Golden State Warriors. Of course, 2004 would not end up how LAL expected, with the Pistons defeating them in five games.

0:00: Shaq led the Lakers with 25 points and 11 boards despite hitting only 7 of 20 FT’s, and Kobe added 20 points with 4 assists – 3 in the 4th Q – and 2 steals. Malone had a 10-point, 10-board, 7-assist effort, while Rush’s six triples off the bench were massive. KG went for 22 points and 17 boards, and Sprewell 27 points with five assists. The NBA’s greatest coach, Phil Jackson, with nine titles already, would have to wait a few years for his 10th and 11th.

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