MINNEAPOLIS -- Sam Cassell is too quick, too vocal, and too important to the Minnesota Timberwolves to be replaced by just one man.
So when Cassell's aching back limited him to a token appearance in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Kevin Garnett raised his voice, Darrick Martin raised his game -- and when the Lakers raised their dukes, Minnesota kept its cool.
Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Martin scored 15 points in place of Cassell, leading the Timberwolves to an 89-71 victory over Los Angeles last night.
Latrell Sprewell scored 17 points and Wally Szczerbiak had 16, but the Wolves needed an impressive group effort to even the series in a game dominated by good defense and bad feelings -- including seven technical fouls and several trash-talking staredowns in the fourth quarter.
Martin -- a nine-year journeyman signed out of the Continental Basketball Association during the regular season -- played 36 minutes when Cassell's back tightened up after just 43 seconds of play. Martin had a few regrettable shots, but he made no turnovers and collected six assists -- and he even got flattened by Karl Malone, who was ejected for a flagrant foul.
"That was a great time for me," Martin said. "We knew it had to be a group effort. Everybody picked up their games. KG handled the ball, Latrell was more aggressive, and I tried not to make any mistakes."
Though the statistic says more about the Lakers' apparent boredom than Martin's excellence, he outscored Los Angeles's entire frontcourt in the first half. He scored on a wild fling at the hoop shortly before halftime -- and he even got cocky, glaring at the Lakers' bench after making a 3-pointer with 3:02 to play.
Garnett did the rest, scoring 14 points in the second half.
"We didn't have a choice," Garnett said of Minnesota's superb team play. "Our general was out. We just kind of looked at ourselves and said, `OK, it's up to us now.' "
Garnett closed the third quarter with a 3-pointer that helped Minnesota hold off a one-man rally by Kobe Bryant, who scored 27 points and briefly roused the Lakers from their game-long slumber. It wasn't nearly enough, and the Lakers matched the lowest-scoring playoff game in franchise history while making fewer than 37 percent of their shots.
Malone acknowledged he lost his head when he threw a shoulder into Martin with 2:31 left, but it only added spice to a series that appeared to be a bit one-sided after the Lakers' victory in Game 1. Instead, the teams are tied heading to Game 3 in Los Angeles tomorrow night.
"We didn't handle that situation good," said Malone, who had just 5 points while battling constant foul trouble. "Give them credit. They kept their composure and won the game."
Shaquille O'Neal had 14 points and 16 rebounds, but didn't strike fear in the Timberwolves as he did in Game 2. He picked up a technical early in the fourth after jawing with Gary Trent.
"You have to anticipate every series being physical at some point," Garnett said. "It's no big deal. We can handle ourselves."
Cassell's back has bothered him since early in the playoffs, and he had trouble even walking without pain before Game 2. He returned to the Timberwolves' bench in the closing minutes, exhorting his teammates in his typically theatrical fashion.
"I'm going," Cassell said of Game 3. "I'll be on the court more than 43 seconds, I promise."
"We weren't desperate. They were," Bryant said. "They played harder."