After an unceremonious exit at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers bolstered their roster by signing Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
While both players were in the twilight of their respective careers, they were joining Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and the foursome was expected to lead the Lakers to a fourth NBA Finals appearance in five seasons.
Growing pains and internal conflict threatened that quest, but the Lakers went 56-26 to secure the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. L.A. eliminated the Houston Rockets in five games in the opening round, then completed a backdoor sweep of the Spurs after dropping the first two games.
That series is of course remembered for the improbable Derek Fisher 0.4 shot. It propelled the Lakers to a playoff matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves for a second time in as many years.
The Lakers stole home-court advantage by winning Game 1 of their Western Conference Finals series. They then took a stranglehold by taking Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center, giving them a commanding 3-1 series lead.
With their backs against the wall, Minnesota hung tough in Game 5 despite not having All-Star point guard Sam Cassell who had previously been limited by back spasms and hip trouble. His absence ultimately proved too difficult of a hurdle to overcome.
The Lakers led by as many as 13 points in the first quarter of Game 6, though saw that lead evaporate in the second. Minnesota went on a rally, sparked by going 21-of-22 at the free throw line, and took a 68-67 lead into the fourth quarter.
At that point the Lakers’ championship mettle set in, and they pulled out a 96-90 victory to clinch the series. Kareem Rush scored 18 points off the bench, knocking down six of his seven attempts from behind the arc.
O’Neal led the Lakers with 25 points and 11 rebounds, but shot an abysmal 7-for-20 from the line. Bryant scored 20 points, while Malone added 10 and 10.
The Timberwolves were led by 27 points from Latrell Sprewell, with 11 of those coming from being perfect at the line. Kevin Garnett put forth a monster effort with 22 points and 17 rebounds, and Wally Szczerbiak had 13 off the bench.
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