LOS ANGELES Only Karl Malone saw the wink.
Though Kobe Bryant said little in the locker room and less during warmups, the Lakers knew his mind was on the game, not back in a Colorado courtroom.
The Mailman glanced at him right before tipoff and Bryant gave a hint that he was ready to put on a show.
''That wink I knew it was on then,'' Malone said with a grin.
After returning to Los Angeles less than two hours before tipoff, Bryant scored 31 points and led the Lakers to a 92-85 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night.
Shaquille O'Neal added 19 points and 19 rebounds for the Lakers, who took a 3-1 series lead and moved to the brink of their fourth trip to the NBA Finals in five seasons.
For the third and final time in the postseason, Bryant returned from a hearing in his upcoming sexual assault trial in time to propel the Lakers to a victory with a spectacular performance. He poured in 18 points in the third quarter as Los Angeles took a 15-point lead, hitting open jumpers and difficult layups with equal aplomb.
''I just go day by day. Whatever I have to do, I'll do,'' Bryant said. ''No matter what it is, no matter what it takes. ... We see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the game becomes more fun.''
Bryant's previous two playoff games under the same conditions were similarly outstanding: Bryant scored 31 points against the Houston Rockets in the first round, and 42 points against San Antonio in the second round.
After one of the most tumultuous regular seasons in recent league history, the Lakers have reclaimed the aura of invincibility that surrounded them during three straight championship runs from 2000-02. They've won seven of their last eight games.
''We've been this way for a while now,'' Bryant said. ''I think that has to do with the playoffs coming around and everybody sensing that this is the time we've been waiting for.''
Kevin Garnett had 28 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists while desperately trying to keep the Timberwolves close in what he dubbed a must-win game.
But the grim-faced league MVP was no match for the freewheeling Lakers' best performance of the series. With everything from Kobe's unbelievable finishes to Shaq's basket-rocking dunks, Los Angeles finally put a little Showtime in the conference finals.
''The effort was there, (but) I'm a little at a loss for words right now,'' Garnett said. ''Could I have done more? Sure. I feel like you've got to be real with yourself. You can't be down 3-1 to the Lakers.''
O'Neal had yet another strong game on the boards, bullying the Timberwolves' big men underneath. The officials ignored Minnesota coach Flip Saunders' pleas for more fouls and though it left Garnett and Saunders steaming, Shaq was in his element.
''I think it gets them tired,'' O'Neal said. ''I feed off that. It's not something I run away from. I'm the NFL's best NBA player. That's obvious, because I'm playing football out there.''
All-Star Sam Cassell's injuries kept him out of the starting lineup and limited him to five minutes for Minnesota. Derek Fisher thrived in Cassell's absence, scoring 15 points for the Lakers.
The Lakers made a 15-2 run in the second quarter and took a five-point lead to halftime and that's when Bryant took over. Kobe brought down the house with a third-quarter layup beating Wally Szczerbiak to the baseline, leaping to draw contact from Michael Olowokandi and reverse-banking a shot off the glass.
''I don't think there's anyone in the game who can make more tough shots than he does,'' Saunders said. ''He's probably the most dynamic player in the game right now.''
Szczerbiak scored 19 points for the Timberwolves, but Los Angeles limited Garnett's supporting cast to 33 percent shooting. Latrell Sprewell had yet another poor night, going 4-for-18.
Notes: Bryant got a technical foul with 3.2 seconds left in the second quarter when he said the wrong word to referee Jack Nies while protesting a no-call. Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Gary Payton also got T's in the third quarter, and Slava Medvedenko got one in the fourth for lightly shoving Garnett. ... The Timberwolves switched from their blue road uniforms, worn in Game 3, to their all-black ensemble.
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