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L.A. gains first win of season vs. Minnesota

3/27/2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Los Angeles Lakers are finally playing
the way most people expected.

Kobe Bryant scored 35 points and Shaquille O'Neal had 22 points
and 18 rebounds Friday night in the Lakers' 90-73 victory over
Minnesota, their seventh consecutive victory and second lopsided
win in a row over a top Western Conference opponent.

The Lakers, with all four of their superstars healthy again,
were coming off a 24-point victory over Sacramento on Wednesday.
Los Angeles trails the Kings by two games.

"Knowing that we've got everybody healthy, we're starting to
build our chemistry back," Bryant said. "We're a confident bunch.
That comes from experience, so when we get into the playoffs, we
have the confidence that we can beat anybody."

Los Angeles' first win in four games against Minnesota this
season moved the Lakers (49-23) ahead of the Timberwolves (49-24)
for the Western Conference's second-best record.

"That was a real important win," Los Angeles coach Phil
Jackson said. "Odds are that we'll meet them in the playoffs, and
we wanted to send the message that we're not going to be easy to
beat."

Bryant said the Lakers definitely want to get the West's top
seeding for the playoffs.

"We're going to go get it. That's been our approach all along --
that we're going to play the season all the way through and see
where we end up," the Lakers' guard said.

Jackson obviously is pleased to see the Lakers' making a move.

"I think they've got the smell of the finish line," he said.
"In horse racing, some horses smell the end of the race and they
get out there and get it.

"We've still got a long way to go, but I feel like we're
controlling our own destiny."

The game against Minnesota had a playoff-type atmosphere, with
the sellout crowd of 18,997 loud and lively.

Karl Malone and Gary Payton were content to be mostly role
players and let Bryant and O'Neal carry the offensive load. Malone
had four points and Payton seven.

Latrell Sprewell led the Timberwolves, who have lost the first
two games of a four-game road trip, with 19 points, but he was just
5-of-15 from the floor. Kevin Garnett, guarded mostly by Malone,
went 6-of-18 and had 16 points.

Minnesota shot a season-low 31.4 percent (27-86). The Lakers
shot 39.3 percent (35-89).

"We played terrible," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said.
"Kobe was great and Shaq controlled the paint, but neither team
really lit it up as far as shooting."

Bryant had 11 points in the first quarter and the Lakers were up
25-21, then O'Neal scored 10 in the second and Los Angeles led
50-42 at halftime. Bryant had 13 in the third quarter as the Lakers
outscored the Timberwolves 28-12 to open a 78-54 lead.

Bryant, coming off a 36-point performance against Sacramento,
made several spectacular shots as the Lakers pulled away in the
third.

Seemingly trapped under the basket by three defenders, Bryant
whirled toward the free throw line and lofted the ball as he fell
away. It went in to give Los Angeles a 57-42 lead.

Late in the game, Bryant got a defensive rebound, turned and
fired a perfect lead pass to Rick Fox at the other end of the court
for an easy layup. Bryant held his arms up and signaled touchdown
as the crowd roared.

Game notes
The Timberwolves had beaten the Lakers 96-86 in their
previous meeting before a record crowd of 20,391 at Target Center
on March 12. The Lakers had all four of their superstars for that
game, but it was Malone's first time back after spending more than
two months on the injured list. ... Malone, 40, said he is weighing
whether to retire after this season, saying it would be for
personal reasons -- to spend more time with his family -- and not
whether he still thought he could play or not.