Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers will be trying to win their first NBA title without Shaquille O'Neal when the Finals open Thursday, against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.

The Lakers failed to do so last year, losing to Boston in a humiliating Game 6.

O'Neal was traded after Los Angeles lost the 2004 Finals to Detroit, leaving Bryant the undisputed leader of a team that won three straight championships at the start of the decade.

"People that really know basketball know that that stuff means nothing," Bryant said yesterday, deflecting questions on O'Neal. "It's nonsensical, actually. You want to win just to win it."

Timberwolves in limbo

Minnesota boss David Kahn and Kevin McHale are still deciding McHale's status as coach.

Assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg and the rest of the evaluators in the front office are furiously planning for the draft, without a guarantee that Kahn will keep them beyond that.

The Timberwolves are, again, a team in limbo.

There's so much reconstruction work to do, though, that even if the holdovers were to publicly acknowledge the awkwardness, there is little time to fret about it.

"We've got plenty to keep our minds on right now," Hoiberg said.

Kahn was hired 10 days ago as the team's president of basketball operations. McHale was in charge of the front office for more than 13 years before owner Glen Taylor sent him to the bench last December to replace the fired Randy Wittman.

Kahn and McHale have talked at least once, and will meet again this week to discuss whether McHale will come back.

Ratings success

Orlando's Eastern Conference championship victory over Cleveland on Saturday night drew more than 8.3 million viewers, capping a strong series for TNT. The network averaged 8.6 million viewers for the six-game series, a 37 percent increase over its 2008 coverage of the conference finals.

- Associated Press