MINNEAPOLIS -- The Los Angeles Lakers have not taken the easy route all season, so why start now?
Their non-performance in a 119-91 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 2 of their first-round series guaranteed that, at the very least, the Quatro Quest must make a return to the Target Center next week.
It's easy to write this off as an aberration. The Timberwolves won't shoot 63 percent through three quarters on too many nights and Troy Hudson won't often outscore Kobe Bryant 37-27. Shaquille O'Neal won't need to travel to South Carolina and back for a funeral between every game.
No need to panic yet.
And maybe that's the problem for the Lakers.
They need to see the train coming before they bother to do anything about the damsel tied to the tracks.
After all, it wasn't until they looked under their tree and saw a 19th loss on Christmas that they realized they hadn't been very nice this season. They responded by winning 31 of their final 52 games.
On Sunday, the prospect of starting the playoffs in purple uniforms for the first time since any of them came to Los Angeles gave them the necessary sense of urgency. With it, they produced the most impressive opening game of any of the title contenders.
Then they turned around out and hauled out the biggest dud of the postseason.
After they commandeered homecourt advantage in the series with their victory in Game 1, and Tuesday they acted as if that was all they needed from their trip to Minneapolis. They didn't even bother to go to the Mall of the Americas.
"We came for two games, but they came with desperation," Rick Fox said.
The Timberwolves didn't hide any of the changes they had in store for Game 2.
On Monday said the only way for them to win was to exceed the Lakers' energy level, not just match it. They said they liked the results of the full-court pressure they started using in the third quarter of Game 1. And Wally Szczerbiak blurted out that they would go to a smaller lineup, with Anthony Peeler starting at shooting guard.
All the Lakers had to do was pick up the morning paper to know what was coming. Yet they still seemed unprepared for it.
The Timbewolves managed to do it all, surrounding O'Neal inside and rushing out to the shooters on the perimeter. The Lakers were a step behind in their offense throughout the first half.
"They were very aggressive up the court on us, putting pressure on the ball, taking us out of our offensive sets, our rhythm of the game," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "And their aggressiveness helped them on the offensive end."
Defense is all energy and effort, and that was all the Timberwolves on Tuesday.
The only Lakers who hustled all night were Devean George, who apparently didn't want to be embarrassed in his hometown, and Mark Madsen, who apparently is the only Laker without an "off" button.
Robert Horry saved his most aggressive move for a TNT cameraman that he shoved out of the way at halftime.
Shaquille O'Neal didn't clear out space and demand the ball; as a result it didn't come his way very often.
"It looked like Shaq had been away from the game for a couple of days," Jackson said.
O'Neal won't get any criticism here for his sluggish start in Game 2. He didn't even have to be at Target Center after attending his grandfather's funeral earlier in the day, but he flew back and arrived early in the afternoon. He managed to come around for 27 points and 14 rebounds.
Bryant, with nearly every shot contested, scored 27 as well, but on 9 for 28 shooting.
The Lakers could have stomped on the Timberwolves' throats Tuesday. They could have looked at the scoreboard, at the slim five-point deficit after the Timberwolves outshot them 6 percent to 39 percent in the first quarter, and said, "Is that all you've got?"
But two turnovers late in the first half let the game slip away.
The second half was the complete opposite of the first half. They remained within five to seven points no matter how bad things seemed to be going early on. But after halftime it seemed as if every time they did something right they still trailed by 20.
Afterward, the Lakers sounded content. At times, a little too content.
"I don't think we're supposed to sweep every series," Jackson said.
Well, they came within a game of doing it in 2001.
Said Fox: "None of it will really matter come Thursday. It's homecourt advantage. We go home and play two games."
A couple of signs that the Timberwolves sufficiently have the Lakers' attention:
1) Jackson already went to the referee card, lamenting the fact that the Timberwolves went to the free-throw line 37 times to the Lakers' 22. He said when both teams were defending the ballhandlers with equal amounts of pressure. "That's a little disconcerting to me," Jackson said.
2) Bryant sounded a little edgy by the end.
This is the first time the Lakers haven't won their first two playoff games since 1996 -- again, the first time it has happened for this group.
"It feels a little different," Bryant said. "But 11-19 was unfamiliar territory, too. It feels appropriate." It started sounding more than appropriate. It started to sound energizing.
"You'd like to win every ballgame," Bryant said.
"But at the same time, it excites you," he said, his eyes beginning to light up. "You realize the playoffs are here. I'm upset about the loss, but I'm excited to go back to the Staples Center and step to the table and get it on for Game 3. I can't wait."
Time for energy and excitement? Maybe this is a bigger predicament than we thought.
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