It has been mentioned repeatedly in each of the last two games. With their next win, the Lakers would clinch the top spot in the Western Conference. They could not get it done against San Antonio, and they could not get it done in Denver, either. Tonight, however, they finally cemented their first place in the ultra-competitive West as the playoffs feel that much closer.

Reported to have arrived in Minneapolis at 3:00AM after a hard-fought game against Denver, the Lakers could have let another get away from them and it would not have been a surprise, given their inconvenient traveling circumstances.

Item #1 on Stu’s Views, however, was “No Excuses.” A late night, an early morning — it should not matter how exhausted you feel. Put your best foot forward and just play. Item #3 states, “Remember Who You Are.”

Against a young, but pesky, Minnesota Timberwolves team, who is still trying to find themselves, it was not difficult for the Lakers to be reminded of the huge gap that lay between them and their opponents this evening. On one side, a coach who holds the record for the most NBA titles and a veteran team defending their championship; on the other, a new coach teaching the nuances of the triangle offense to a patchwork of youths still learning to stitch their way together.

Pau Gasol, finding his efficiency at just the right time, remained the floor leader on this team. No one in a Minnesota uniform could guard against Pau’s quickness or his offensive arsenal. He scored on a swinging left-handed hook shot, jumpers and dunks. His knowledge of every player’s position on the floor was, as usual, keen, allowing him to create plays from the inside. Each time he was doubled, passes to open men were deliberate and crisp, often resulting in wide-open opportunities.

With 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, Pau had one of his most well rounded games to date.

The Lakers supporting cast was not to be overshadowed this evening. For the second night in a row, Ron Artest contributed offensively with his 11 points, not to mention his pair of assists and a steal.

The Lakers bench, scrutinized all season for their sporadic contributions, were a welcome sign of promise.

Jordan Farmar led the way with 13 points, five assists, four rebounds, and three steals. He was aggressive going at the basket, which earned him two free throws, both of which he made. He used his greatest advantage, speed, for running passes, and in one exciting moment, used excellent body control to score on a backdoor lob from Luke Walton.

D.J. Mbenga, seldom used but always ready to play, never saw a shot he could not block and tonight he earned two. With 11 points, D.J.’s presence was also felt offensively. Each time he gets the opportunity to play, he plays with maximum effort; a quality from which some of his teammates could take a lesson.

In one exciting sequence, Jordan passed to Luke Walton, who passed to Sasha, who passed to Josh Powell, who got an assist for passing to D.J. for an and-1. In all, the Lakers reserves contributed 33 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals. If their production in the playoffs could match or even surpass their production in tonight’s game, the Lakers would be that much more threatening.

Starting in Kobe’s place at tip-off was Shannon Brown, still nursing an injured thumb that he re-aggravated after an emphatic dunk in Denver. Learning to play through the discomfort and pain, Shannon managed 11 points, four rebounds and two steals.

When the 18-point halftime lead had suddenly turned into just four, the need for a closer, with still 3:10 seconds left, was imminent. Lamar Odom, as calm a shooter as you can get, received a pass from Jordan Farmar, resulting in a shot from downtown. With the clock winding down, Jordan threw a low lob to Lamar who softly guided the ball to the hoop. Icing with 30 seconds left on the clock. Tonight’s closer – L.O.

The Lakers got their win and they finally clinched their first place spot in the Western Conference for the third straight year. Could they take the top spot in all of the NBA? Here’s hoping.

Pre-game Thoughts: Still no Kobe and Andrew today. Also, no Al Jefferson. Hopefully the Lakers can pull a win out tonight and FINALLY clinch the Western Conference top spot for good!

Half-time Thoughts: 52-34 – seems ages ago since the Lakers were up this huge at halftime.

Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Derek Fisher, Luke Walton and Josh Powell, for their combined 0-12 from the field. They did a number of other things, like play defense and set up shots, but they cannot shoot this terribly in the playoffs.

Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Pau Gasol had another monster night with 29 points on 11-17, 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. Honorable Mention — D.J. Mbenga who played just under 14 minutes and produced 11 points on 5-7, 2 rebounds and 2 blocks.

  • Marwan Marzina

    I'm a bit disappointed that they blew an 18 point lead in the 3rd but hey, they got the win so I don't mind. I just hope that they don't blow leads in the playoffs.

    Congratulations to DJ Mbenga on a career high 11 points. The big man truly earned it and he needs more playing time. His minutes shouldn't suffer just because the rest of the bench has been terrible. Other than Lamar, Shannon and Mbena, the bench is horrible and Mbenga needs more playing time.

  • airkobe

    dj has a soft shooting touch he can use it on the high post if only phil trust those and give dj the confidence.

  • Norm

    I can't even put to words how happy I am for DJ, he deserved that one!

    • Marwan Marzina

      He sure did. Its a shame though, if only the rest of the bench (except Lamar and Shannon) can put aside their ego and learn something from DJ. His minutes have suffered because of the bench's lackluster play.

      The bench can learn a few things from DJ. He can shoot, he rebounds, he is a beast on defense with his blocks and he isn't even being paid $1 million. He is currently being paid just under a million and he is putting in more effort than others on the bench who are swimming in money and have yet to prove they earned it.

      • airkobe

        If he plays along pau he might give some space with his perimeter but that never happen since. Phil trust only talent even some fans. I like watching mbenga his effort and heart to challenge every opponents shot he doesn't matter if he got posterized. As long as he plays along pau n kobe he can be something!

  • wilt

    its about time the bench does something shame it took kobe to be out for that

  • Robert

    DJ may be an 'X' factor. Phil doesn't like to show all his cards in the regular season. He will play his 'regulars' to the point of usefulness as much as he can. Then, when things go south, he'll pull out something different. For example, down the road, I can see a pairing of DJ and Bynum, in what may seem like a 'bizarre' moment, to offset some possible working dominance of another team. It will throw off the teams offense, and give us a chance to change the pace of the game.
    .
    This is just an example. Who knows what is in Phil's game plan for the playoffs? But know this – the playoffs are Phil's 'real' forum. It is here that he works his master craft. Any coach can make it to the playoffs. Not many can make it to the Finals. If, as some sports analysts claim, that the NBA is a 'coaches' league, then we have the best coach in history on our side. We also have the best player!

    • wrong

      So much for your theory…….