LOS ANGELES – The Lakers love a little drama — and the NBA's most entertaining show is headed back to the NBA Finals. Shaquille O'Neal (search) had 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Kareem Rush came from nowhere to hit six 3-pointers in a 96-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Monday night.
Kobe Bryant (search) scored 20 points for the Lakers, who overcame Kevin Garnett, their constant bickering with the referees and O'Neal's horrific 7-for-20 free throw shooting to win the best-of-seven series.
Their fourth trip to the championship round in five seasons will begin Sunday. Detroit, leading the Eastern Conference finals 3-2, will visit Los Angeles if the Pistons finish off the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night.
The Lakers improved to 9-0 at Staples Center in the postseason, but Garnett and the Timberwolves spent most of the game on the verge of an improbable upset.
Unbowed by the Lakers' nine championship banners and intimidating home crowd, the Timberwolves played tight defense and made enough free throws to take a lead into the fourth quarter. But Bryant and Rush led a 15-6 run early in the quarter, and Slava Medvedenko added two critical baskets in the final minutes.
Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who signed with the Lakers last summer for a chance at their first NBA title, joined their teammates in a group hug near the bench before accepting the conference championship trophy.
Latrell Sprewell (search) scored 27 points, and Garnett — who fouled out in the final minute — had 22 points and 17 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who nearly extended the best season in franchise history to a Game 7 in Minneapolis.
Instead, Minnesota's first trip to the conference finals ended when it couldn't score enough to overcome the absence of injured All-Star Sam Cassell. The Lakers stole Game 1 in Minneapolis and hung on for three home victories.
Bryant, O'Neal and Garnett all got in first-half foul trouble in a tightly officiated game. O'Neal sat on the bench for 4 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter after picking up his fifth foul, and Malone also got five fouls trying to stay with Garnett.
But Rush, the second-year guard who had 11 points in the entire series, made shot after shot from the perimeter. His 3-pointer with 3:22 to play gave Los Angeles a 10-point lead and sent the crowd into pandemonium.
Though only five players remain from the Lakers' 2000 championship team, the current club has many similarities to the three-time titlists. They're almost invincible when even one of their role players is able to make outside shots — and Rush splendidly filled the role previously played by Glen Rice, Robert Horry and Rick Fox.
But this series was in doubt until the final minutes of Game 6. After Minnesota won Game 5 to snap the Lakers' streak of 12 straight victories in potential closeout games, Los Angeles looked awfully shaky for most of their homecoming.
As usual, they expended plenty of energy arguing: Payton and Malone got technical fouls, and Bryant got one in his fourth straight game.
Except for Bryant's spectacular dunk on the opening possession, there was nothing pretty about the first half — partly thanks to aggressive officiating that sent Bryant and Garnett to their benches with early foul trouble.
The Lakers jumped to a 13-point lead in the first quarter with Garnett out, but Minnesota rallied largely by going 21-for-22 from the free throw line.
The Lakers caused many of their own problems with foolish defensive ploys and O'Neal's poor free throw shooting — and coach Phil Jackson (search) inexplicably left O'Neal in the game with three fouls late in the first half. Shaq picked up his fourth with 1:01 to play.