|Sonics' boom ... out go the lights|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
The Sonics were 8-2 a couple of weeks back when I bumped into Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris. "You've got to take a look at Seattle," he insisted. "They can all shoot the lights out, and they're for real."
OK. Even though Seattle lost seven of its next 10 games, I decided to eyeball them at MSG on Dec. 10, figuring the SuperSonics could strut their stuff against the pitiful Knicks with only minimal resistance. I didn't count on Rashard Lewis serving a one-game suspension for fighting. (A 6-foot-10 power forward, Lewis was the team's top rebounder and second-best scorer.) Oh well, somebody else would step up and take advantage of the unexpected playing time.
Besides a roster full of sharpshooters, what else could I expect from Nate McMillan's ball club? The consensus around the league is that the Sonics will indeed live or die by the jump shot. Lacking the rebounding to initiate fast breaks, the Sonics' survival depends on their half-court offense -- which features lots of motion, some staggered picks for Brent Barry, pick-and-rolls galore for Gary Payton, some flex action, isos for Payton, and post-ups for Payton and Desmond Mason. Their bigs -- 6-11 Predrag Drobnjak and 6-10 Vladimir Radmanovic -- are mostly perimeter threats.
On defense, the Sonics have traditionally looked to trap -- doubling-down on pivot players, clamping the wings and baseline isos, and even two-timing the point to force the opponents' shooting guard to initiate the offense. Back when George Karl coached the Sonics (1992-98), his trapping schemes were both perpetual and predictable, whereas McMillan's are more selective and difficult to anticipate.
Weiss knows that it'll take more than tricks to get the Sonics into the postseason. "Because there are so many good teams in the West," he says, "making the playoffs won't be easy. For us to have any chance of squeezing into the seventh or eighth slot, we've got to move the ball, shoot the ball, play defense and rebound. Right now, our defensive rebounding is what needs the most improvement. Even so, we're still a very dangerous team and nobody'll want to play us in a short playoff series. It's just like last year, when we were the seventh seed and stretched San Antonio to five games."
And as it has been for, lo, these many seasons, the key to the Sonics' fortunes is in the hands of Gary Payton. At age 34, Payton has been a fixture in Seattle's backcourt for 12 seasons. Yet, although he's due to become a free agent in June, management doesn't even want to talk about an extension until after the season. Several scouts around the league support Seattle's reluctance to re-sign Payton, reporting that more than ever he's looking to ambush the passing lanes and is more interested in steals than in playing solid positional defense.
Does Weiss also believe The Glove is fraying around the edges?
"I think he's a better defender now than ever before," Weiss says, "but only if he respects the guy he's guarding. Otherwise, he'll get bored and start to drift all over the court, while his guy winds up scoring 20." Weiss also notes that Payton routinely plays hurt, plays hard in practice, and can stay in front of even the league's swiftest point guards.
But what about Payton's reputation for being a nasty, negative presence on the court and off? In the past, any teammate who exhibited what Payton interpreted as a lack of awareness, a lack of hustle or insufficient talent would be viciously cursed and vilified. In addition, Payton was reputed to habitually eat coaches for lunch.
"He's mellowed," Weiss swears. "It used to be that there were other vets around who also had a large voice in what went down. Guys like Shawn Kemp and Sam Perkins. Now it's totally Gary's team. Instead of his usual in-your-face confrontations, Gary is actually nurturing the younger guys."
Come gametime, I saw many things I expected to see and many I didn't.
Obviously Payton has great respect for Allan Houston, because he plays vigorous defense against the Knicks' high-scoring guard. There's Houston one-on-one with GP at the left wing -- and Payton is body-to-body, crouching with his feet set wide apart. In NBA parlance, Payton is "in Houston's pants." Also, Payton's right arm from the wrist to the elbow (or, "the bar") is pressed hard against Houston's left hip. Houston is clearly uncomfortable and as he rises to launch a shot, Payton slides forward just a few inches, enough to make "casual" contact with Houston's legs. The shot misses.
Too bad Seattle's traps are surprisingly sluggish and porous. Also, the Sonics' bigs have limited lateral movement and rotate too slowly to prevent Latrell Sprewell and Houston from bagging 3-pointers.
As expected, the Sonics' ball movement is crisp (they average only 12.6 turnovers per game, second in the NBA to the Mavericks' 12.5), and most of the players are demonstrably unselfish. Desmond Mason starts in place of Lewis and is a notable exception: Mason is a third-year small forward who always plays at maximum warp-speed, even when the game requires a more deliberate and considered pace. A slasher and a hustler, Mason simply moves too quickly to properly read the floor. I also take notice of Mason's extremely low release, a flaw that limits the accuracy of his long-range shooting (27 percent lifetime on 3-balls). For the game, Mason shoots at least three airballs and generally stinks up the court.
Radmanovic is another below-par passer. He can execute acceptable passes only when his feet are securely planted, but when he tries to pass on the move, the ball seems to be alive.
From the get-go, the Sonics look dull and disinterested. Jumpers clang off the rims and bang off the backboards. Drobnjak and Radmanovic play like they've traded in their sneakers for combat boots. Charlie Ward makes a crude shot-fake from a step beyond the 3-point line, but the deception is good enough to fool the 6-10 Radmanovic, who does a Superman imitation. By the time Radmanovic lands, Ward is elsewhere, pulling up to bag an open jumper. Big men should never -- never -- allow outlying guards to fake them off their feet.
Other surprises include: rookie Reggie Evans with the worst hand mechanics on the free-throw line since Chris Dudley. Brent Barry being unable to shake loose for a good look at the basket. And even Payton's shot is off.
But there's Payton still playing gangbusters defense, still locking up Houston's left hip and forcing errant shots. Now he hounds Houston into a turnover and a foul.
Going back to 1994, Payton has been a perennial selection to the NBA All-Defensive team, and that's why the referees let him get away with murder.
On a switch, Payton winds up guarding Kurt Thomas. Despite giving up four inches and 55 pounds, Payton doesn't back down. He fronts Thomas to deny him the ball inside -- and when the bigger man tries to spin away, Payton blatantly grabs and holds Thomas's shorts, effectively rendering him motionless. The closest referee (Jim DeRosa) blinks but continues sucking on his whistle.
With the Sonics misfiring from all angles, their offense is stalled in rush-hour traffic. Payton finally hits a few jumpers and curls around a low screen for a baby-hook. Otherwise, every offensive sequence is an exercise in disaster.
No surprise that the Knicks prevail 97-80.
Outside the postgame locker room, MacMillan is complaining to the media about how the Knicks bogarted his players and upset their rhythm. "We also missed Rashard," he says, "but there's no excuse for so many guys to just go through the motions. We never gave ourselves a chance to win the game."
Inside, one of the players echoes his coach's concern about his teammates' lack of effort: "A lot of these guys don't realize how fortunate they are to be playing in the NBA. I keep telling them over and over how they owe it to themselves and to each other to play hard every night. But they still have too many games like this when they're sleepwalking. I just don't understand it."
Another member of the organization voices this complaint: "The two big Yugoslavs are great shooters when they're wide open, but that's just about all they can do. The team got off to such a good start this season because everybody was busy double-teaming GP and Rashard, and nobody paid any attention to the big white guys parked outside. But the second time around the league, the defense is honing in on the two of them, and now they're just about useless. Man, we ain't going nowhere unless they bring some other big guys in here."
"It's a long season," Payton was saying to Mason, "and sometimes you have bad games. That's all there is to it. You've just got to spit these kind of games out like it's vinegar or something. You can't let the bad taste linger around or else it'll still be there to mess up the next game."
Weiss was right -- here's a kindler, gentler Gary Payton.
In a private moment, Payton admits the refs let him use his hands more than is legally allowable. "It's all about reputation," he says. Then he wants to talk about Houston. "He's mostly a rhythm shooter. Once you let him create enough space so he can start his little bounce, then you're done for. What I try to do with Houston is to crowd him and make him worry about shooting -- about getting off a good shot -- instead of letting him focus on scoring. Yeah, playing somebody like Houston is definitely a challenge."
The Sonics played in Philly the next night (Lewis returned to score 20, and Mason came off the bench to score eight points and spark a comeback win, 92-88). Just before he boards the team bus for the airport, Weiss says, "That was obviously not the team Del Harris was talking about. But don't give up on us just yet."
In the long run, the Sonics are man-to-man with two vital questions: Can they gear up and hold together long enough to eventually find their groove? If so, how long will this process take?
Watch this space for further developments.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."