OK, no fair if Devean George and Gary Payton are going to go off on the Timberwolves. Payton scored 18 points -- 14 in the first quarter -- and handed out nine assists in the Lakers' 100-89 win in Game 3 Tuesday night. George added 12 points, eight in the first half.
The Lakers lead the Western Conference finals 2-1, and if Payton and George are going to be turning in performances like that, the Wolves are in serious trouble, because the Lakers have come this far without much help from those two. And by "this far" I mean "to the brink of a championship."
I've spent most of the playoffs, not to mention the regular season, wondering what George was doing in the NBA, never mind in a starting lineup with four future Hall of Famers. But Tuesday he played smart, hustling defense -- usually he's only notable on the defensive end because he's just been burned -- and shot 5-for-8, only the second time he's gone over 50 percent on as many as five shots since March 19, and that was against L.A.'s junior varsity team.
Payton put on a shooting display in the first quarter, then settled in for a fine all-around game, something he hasn't been doing much of lately, which explains why he often watches crunch time from the bench.
I think that at 35, Payton is more washed up than Karl Malone is at 40, even though Malone is more obviously a shadow of his one-time self. But Malone can still have a major effect on a game. He still bangs, defends, rebounds and hits the occasional jumper. Counting the playoffs the Lakers are 41-13 when he plays, 23-17 when he doesn't -- in other words, they're the best team in the league with him, a borderline playoff qualifier without him -- and that's not some kind of statistical oddity. You could see it at play in Game 3.
Kevin Garnett was as usual Minnesota's leading scorer and rebounder Tuesday (22 and 11), but he didn't come up huge. And for the Wolves to beat the Lakers, or pretty much any quality team, Garnett has to come up huge. That's tough to do against Malone, especially when Malone is getting help from double-teams. There's no way Malone at this age will ever win the matchup against Garnett, who's in his prime, but Malone doesn't have to be better than Garnett. He just has to do his part to keep the MVP from carrying his team.
Garnett had seven assists in Game 3, yet another indicator of what a wonderful player he is. If he's not scoring, he's setting up his teammates. The problem is, any opponent would be thrilled to have Garnett setting up his teammates. Since the start of the Kings series, the Wolves are 5-5. In the five wins, Garnett has 137 points and 15 assists. In the five losses, he has 92 points and 27 assists.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you want to beat Minnesota, make Garnett pass the ball. Latrell Sprewell can still win a game for his team. Let him try.
So assuming Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are going to do their thing, not a bad assumption given the way Bryant is playing and the fact that the Wolves have exactly no quality centers to slow down Shaq, and assuming that Malone and his helpers will keep Garnett from burning them, you have to like the Lakers' chances even without George and Payton having big games. If those two are playing well, it's a walkover.
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, you can never assume anything about the Lakers, and the Lakers rarely do anything twice in a row. Game 4 is Thursday night in Los Angeles. Who are you betting on to have a big game, Kevin Garnett or Gary Payton?
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Flames win, breasts bared [PERMALINK]
A springtime ritual came to an end at my house Tuesday night with the season finale of "24." All basketball and hockey playoff games get the pause-button treatment while the wife and I follow Jack Bauer through another hour of another really bad day.
He's had three real stinkers now, but you know what? I'd take a Jack Bauer bad day, I really would. I'd take the stress, the guns held to my head, the serial kidnapping of my only child, the requirement that I kill innocent people from time to time, the fate of millions in my shaky, heroin-addicted hands. I'd take it all if I could, just for that one day, have the cellphone reception that guy gets.
Anyway, the Tampa Bay Lightning had a really bad day Tuesday (see how I did that, writing students?), losing at home to the Calgary Flames 4-1 in the opener of the Stanley Cup Finals.
This presumably set off much celebrating on 17th Avenue in Calgary, which gives me an excuse to pass along the link sent to me by several Calgarians, who are evidently very proud of their town for producing Flamesgirls, both the actual girls and the Web site named for them, which you'd be well advised not to visit while you're at work.
I mentioned last week that the National Post newspaper had reported a big dropoff in business in Calgary's strip clubs, and my Calgary readers suggested that the free shirt-lifting action out on 17th was the reason. It would also appear that the bra business is suffering in southern Alberta.
The big star of Tuesday's game was Calgary's big star, Jarome Iginla, who made the game's key play, a breakaway, short-handed goal that gave the Flames a 2-0 lead in the second period. I find it hard to believe that anyone who pays even casual attention to hockey is just now finding out about Iginla, but that's what the TV guys keep saying so it must be true.
Do yourself a favor if you don't know Iginla and tune in to the rest of this series, which figures to be a lot closer than that lopsided Game 1 would lead one to believe. And while you're at it check out my favorite Lightning, Martin St. Louis -- I'm assuming if you don't know Iginla you don't know St. Louis, whose name is not pronounced "Saint Lewis."
St. Louis -- "san l'w-EEE," and easy on that "n" -- is my favorite Lightning because he reminds me a tiny little bit of Marcel Dionne, hometown hockey hero of my youth, and also because he came up with Calgary, who let him get away, so that adds some spice to the story.
So you know who else Calgary let get away? Elisha Cuthbert, who plays the dumb, oft-kidnapped daughter of Jack Bauer on "24." She's a native daughter.
See how I brought that back around?
Previous column: All guarantees, guaranteed! Plus Reggie Miller
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