2004 was a bit of a turning point in the NBA. The Lakers 3-peat was over at the hands of the Spurs the previous season, and in an attempt to get back to former glory they signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone, both aging and ringless. Mailman had a rare injury plagued year, playing only 42 games. In his past 18 seasons he had missed a total of 10 games.
The Lakers may have had the Big 4, but they didn’t have the MVP. That would be Kevin Garnett, who was joined this season by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, and surprised the league by finishing the season on a 9 game win streak and capturing the #1 seed in the West.
No mean feat either, the West at arguably it’s most dominant over the East. Detroit, Indiana and New Jersey the only teams with records which would have made the playoffs in the West. Probably explains why most of the top rookies were all in the East – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and of course Darko Milicic.
The Lakers got the #2 seed, and after beating Houston and San Antonio, set up a 1v2 Western Conference Finals with the Wolves, who had beaten Denver in the first round before beating the Kings in 7. It’s a series that, looking at the lineups below, was lucky to not have been played on paper. We go into Game 5 with the Lakers leading 3 games to 1.
PG: Gary Payton v Darrick Martin
SG: Kobe Bryant v Latrell Sprewell
SF: Devean George v Trenton Hassell
PF: Karl Malone v Kevin Garnett
C: Shaquille O’Neal v Michael Olowokandi (see pic below for results)
Coach: Phil Jackson, sitting in his highchair v Flip Saunders.
Doug Collins looks like he also purchased himself “the Phil”, commentating next to 5’6″ Marv Albert and 5’7″ Mike Fratello. Maybe you get given a high chair when the Bulls sack you as coach?
The scoring is opened by Gary Payton, who has a habit of playing well in the first quarter then disappearing. This series he has 29 first quarter points and 10 in the other 3 quarters. Devean George, the Jose Carreras of the Lakers’ starting lineup, scores 4 quick points for a 6-0 lead and Flip wants to talk.
Marv Albert goes into series recap mode, first bringing up Lenny Kravitz…I mean Olowokandi’s game 1 where he got 10 points and 11 rebounds. I wondered why, as that seemed pretty normal, but he had gone 0/5 combined over the next 3 games. Then he mentions that in the previous game Shaq and Malone were outrebounding Minnesota at the end of the 3rd quarter 29 to 24. No wonder they had a 3-1 lead.
O’Neal is scoring whenever he wants, and it doesn’t take long for the home crowd to start booing Olowokravitz, after he passes the ball straight to the Glove. A Devean George shot hits the shot clock which leaves me wondering, does this happen in 75% of games?
Poor Minnesota defense on an inbounds play leads to an open Kobe 3 which makes it 13-6. Mike Fratello starts talking but the telecast cuts him off with a sudden ad break.
We’re back with Cheryl Miller on the sidelines talking about an injured Sam Cassell, who is on the bench with a sore hip, a sore back and an oversized pink shirt. The Wolves need offense, so on comes Fred Hoiberg and Wally Szczerbiak. Don’t laugh. Ex-Laker Madsen is also in for the Wolves, along with Derek Fisher for the Lakers, who has been red hot.
KG is now playing point guard, although when you look at who else the Wolves have, he may as well be playing 1-on-5. Sprewell was cold last game, going 1/10 in the last 3 quarters, and without Cassell playing it really is a one man show, despite Doug Collins including Wally World in Minny’s “Big 3”
LA Lakers 21 – Minnesota 14
The second quarter starts with the camera directly on Wolves GM Kevin McHale in the crowd. He apparently reminded the Wolves that coming back from 3-1 down was not impossible, as his Celtics did it to Philly in 1981. Doug Collins, on Philly that season, possibly not so happy to be reminded about that.
Slava Medvedenko and Rick Fox come on. Then 15 seconds later Kareem Rush comes on for Medvedenko. I wonder what he did wrong.
Kobe is peak hog this game, forcing shots with guys in his face. Once, with the ball, he is busy whinging to the ref instead of noticing a winding down shot clock, and has to force a 3 which misses badly. He keeps going at the ref and earns himself a technical for the third game in a row. He then takes on a double team all by himself and misses again, while an unhappy Shaq looks on from the bench.
With Kobe shooting the Wolves back into the game, and no Shaq there to scare the guards away from the rim, the score is soon tied at 23. By guards I mean Sprewell only. Shaq is soon back on, replacing Kobe, and his give and go to Derek Fisher ends up in a 3 point play where the missed free throw is nearly tipped in by Szczerbiak. Instant offense Wally World.
Kobe is back, and you can tell him and Shaq aren’t getting along at all at this point. Shaq finds himself posting up deep on Mark Madsen, an easy 2 points, but Kobe doesn’t throw him the ball.
Kobe gets the lead back for the Lakers and the Wolves’ fans free cheeseburgers behind 2/2 three pointers and 0/2 free throws. With 2 minutes left, a do-it-all Garnett rebound, dribble up and midrange shot makes the score 40-37 in favour of the Lakers, and we go to an ad break.
We come back and we’re already at the start of the 3rd, with the scores
Minnesota 46 – LA Lakers 40
What???!!! Minnesota went on a 9-0 run and they just skipped it?
Anyway, the Wolves keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ and back to back KG baskets extends the run to 17-0 and the lead to 50-40.
A bad offensive foul call at half court on Olowokravitz earns a tech from Flip and more boos from the crowd, although I’m not sure whether they’re for the ref or Kandiman. The make up call soon follows, giving Karl Malone his 4th foul.
Sprewell gets the score up to 60-49, but isn’t getting much help outside of KG. Kravitz goes 1/2 from the line for his only point of the game, which is better than Madsen’s free throw, an airball. Fred Hoiberg keeps things ticking along, but relying on Hoiberg in a game 5 of a Western Conference Finals?
Garnett finishes the quarter with 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Kobe only scores one point in the quarter, matching Olowokravitz.
Minnesota 73 – LA Lakers 63
The Wolves continue to score through Hoiberg and Szczerbiak, who wouldn’t look out of place in an American Pie movie. KG is playing with energy like Adam Sandler has money on him. Sprewell turned back the clock a few years to score 11 straight Minnesota points to put them up 16.
It’s halfway through the 4th and for some reason Olowokandi is still on. He misses a dunk to which Doug Collins suggests that it could start a Laker run. It does.
Kobe, who has had a quiet second half to this point, is playing a nice 2 man game with Karl Malone. Something we never see with him and Shaq this game. The lead is brought back to 6 with 3 minutes left.
Hoiberg then hits a crazy 3 point play with contact on the head from Kobe. Kobe tries to answer on the other end with a contested forced 3 which misses. After another forced 3 by Kobe, Marv says the Wolves are doing a good defensive job on him. That might be true, but he’s also shutting himself down with his own shot selection.
A KG score gets the whole crowd on their feet, except McHale evidently. Come on Kevin! This game is all but over. Luke Walton comes on and we’re in a free throw shooting contest causing Shaq to foul out, replaced by Brian Cook. A Derek Fisher 3 on the buzzer makes the score look a lot closer than what it was.
KG 30pts, 19reb
Kandi 1pt, 5fouls (led team), 2to (led team)
LA Lakers 96
Kobe 23pts, 7ast
Shaq 17pts, 13reb, 4blk
Malone, Fisher 17pts
The Lakers went on to win the series 4-2 and face the Pistons in the Finals. They lost the series, then lost Payton to the Celtics, Shaq to the Heat and Malone to retirement, and ended up as the 11th seed the following year.
The Wolves brought back essentially the same team the following year, Sprewell’s last. But they couldn’t find the same success, McHale replacing Saunders midseason, and ended up as the 9th seed. They wouldn’t sniff the playoffs again until the arrival of Jimmy Butler.
Weird huh. The two Western Conference Finals teams both missing the playoffs the following year. I wonder if that will ever happen again?