Last season, when they came roaring out of the seventh playoff spot to make the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, the Seattle SuperSonics seemed the bright-eyed innocents of the NBA playoffs. This season they are more like the Pistons of the Northwest, a physically intimidating bunch that lurks in the shadows, ready to make trouble again. The Sonics won only 44 regular-season games and again finished seventh in the conference, but everybody knew—off last year's performance—that they certainly were capable of bigger, and badder, things in the postseason.
Seattle's opponent in the first-round Western playoff series is of a different breed. The Denver Nuggets favor speed over strength, sinew over muscle, spontaneity over pattern. Their "passing game" offense, choreographed by that mad genius of a coach, Doug Moe, is frantic, what with players cutting this way and that in a perpetual-motion frenzy. The offense is fun to watch, but it has never seemed, well, stable enough to make Denver a true contender. Nevertheless, Moe coaxed 54 wins out of the Nuggets this season, good enough for a second-place conference finish, and-Denver swept into the playoffs with a 16-2 record in its final regular-season games.
The series was considered unpredictable, with the overachieving Nuggets rated perhaps a slight favorite over the Sonics, a much harder team to read. But as the teams split two games last weekend at Denver's McNichols Arena, some of the questions produced answers. To wit: If the Sonics distribute the ball among their top three scorers, Dale Ellis, Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers, they are the better team. If the Sonics disrupt Denver's motion offense before it has a chance to get into high gear, they are the better team. And, if the Sonics continue to batter Denver on the boards and maintain their physical advantage without getting into a lot of foul trouble, they will certainly be the better team.
The Nuggets won a sizzling Game 1 Friday night, 126-123, but they were lucky and they knew it. Seattle made only two of six free throws in the final 1:31 and, for the game, converted only 21, compared to Denver's 41. No one was sure how the Sonics would come out for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon because their powder-keg nature makes them equally capable of explosion or implosion. Denver found out early. Seattle raced to a 22-8 lead, stretched it to 66-41 by halftime and never looked back in a 111-91 victory.
"They played two great games, much better than we played," said Moe. "Let's face it, we're fortunate to be even with them at this point."
And when one analyzes the teams, mano a mano, the Nuggets would seem to be fortunate just to be alive. Consider Seattle's 6'9" rookie, Derrick McKey. The Nuggets simply have no one like him, an off-the-bench wild card who plays defense, rebounds, runs the floor and even has three-point shooting range. Let's move to the obvious. There was the 6'10" Chambers towering over the Nuggets' 6'7" Alex English, intimidating the usually reliable scoring machine into a woeful 6-of-18 shooting performance (16 points) in Game 2. O.K., so that particular defensive matchup sometimes left Seattle's 6'7" McDaniel guarding the Nuggets' 6'11" Danny Schayes, but McDaniel is the Sonics' Darth Vader, a bulldog of a player who doesn't back down from anyone. The X-Man had a game-high 17 rebounds in Game 2 to go with his 23 points.
And there was the lean and mean 6'7" shooting guard, Ellis, posting up the smaller Nugget guards, either the 6'3" Fat Lever or the 5'11" Michael Adams. Even when Moe stuck his sturdiest defender, T.R. Dunn, on Ellis, the Sonic player had a three-inch advantage. Ellis wheeled his way to 24 points in Game 2, and when he was cut off by a Denver double-team, he found the open man, as did Chambers and McDaniel. All three finished with five assists each, only one less than point guard Nate McMillan, generally considered the only Sonic with the inclination to give up the ball.
The Nuggets saw what was in store for them early in Game 2 when Ellis and Chambers executed a perfect pick-and-roll, with Chambers getting the bucket. A couple of possessions later, Chambers was double-covered and gave Ellis a bounce pass that led to a basket. This is how the Sonic offense should operate, but often does not.
The problem is more easily recognized than corrected, however. Chambers, McDaniel and Ellis all have a scorer's mentality, and quite often the Sonic offense is the poorer for it. "Sometimes they get caught up in taking the shot," was the way McMillan diplomatically put it. It is indeed a mixed blessing to be the only NBA team with three 20-point scorers on the floor.
"Obviously, the kind of ball movement we got today [in Game 2] is something that I've been harping on all season. I hope we learned something," said Seattle coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
The Sonics learned quite a few things, too, in the three days they spent at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs before the series began. Bickerstaff decided the "minicamp" was necessary for both an altitude (teams often claim to be sucking wind in the mile-high Denver atmosphere, and Colorado Springs is at a higher elevation than Denver) and attitude adjustment. The emphasis was on defense, preparing for the special challenges of the Nuggets' nonstop assault on the basket.
"We worked on getting our defense straight," said Sonic assistant coach and defensive specialist Bob Kloppenburg. "You read everything, the give-and-gos, the screen-and-rolls, by the cuts they make. Whatever they had, we had a scenario for it. The key to playing Denver is having time to prepare."
No one could deny that Seattle was the better-prepared team in Games 1 and 2. The Sonics jammed up the Denver offense well outside the free throw line and, by sending out their big men to double-team, were particularly unkind to the Nuggets' quarterback, Adams, who shot a combined 5 of 22 from the field and missed all but one of his 11 three-point attempts in the two games. That's where Denver's problems began, for it was Adams, obtained from Washington in a trade three days before the start of the regular season, who had turned the Nuggets around.
From the Nuggets' standpoint, the key to the deal with the Bullets (in which Denver gave, up veteran guard Darrell Walker and second-year forward Mark Alarie) was originally thought to be Jay Vincent, a consistent scorer who can drive or shoot from the outside. The Nuggets won't exactly admit that Adams was a "throw-in," but....
"Let's just say we had higher expectations of Jay than we did of Michael," said Denver general manager Pete Babcock. Babcock was asked if he recalled his evaluation of Adams when the point guard came out of Boston College in 1985. "Sure do," said Babcock. "It said, 'Can't play in the NBA.' " Certainly Washington wasn't worried about losing Adams. "Michael Adams?" said Bullet G.M. Bob Ferry when Adams's name first surfaced in trade talks with Babcock last spring. "I'll give you 10 Michael Adamses."
Well, one did the Nuggets just fine, Bob. Not only did Adams successfully push the ball up the floor, relieving the versatile Lever of that task and freeing him to play the off-guard spot to which he seems better suited, but he also turned into one of the league's most dangerous three-point shooters. From Jan. 28 through April 23, a stretch ending with the regular season, Adams hit at least one three-pointer in 43 straight games, establishing an NBA record. And his season's total of 139 triples was only nine behind league-leader Danny Ainge's 148. Adams ravaged team after team with his peculiar one-handed push shot, roughly the same shooting style employed—as Nugget assistant coach Allan Bristow says—"by every eight-year-old in America."
The Sonics stopped Adams's three-point rampage in Game 1 (although the streak, based only on regular-season games, will carry over to next season) and harassed him into an ineffective 1-of-6 three-point performance in Game 2. But that wasn't what worried the Nuggets. The fact that Adams is much more than a three-point sideshow—"If that's all he could do, he'd be coming off the bench," said Bristow—was proved in the first two games. The Nuggets needed him to jump-start their offense in Games 3 and 4 in Seattle this week, or they would have to put Lever back at the point and give more minutes to Dunn, putting up with his nonexistent offense in hopes of containing Ellis.
Besides Adams, the other big surprise for the Nuggets this season was the play of Schayes. In the preseason Moe figured on a three-player pivot arrangement that also involved Blair Rasmussen and Wayne Cooper. That strategy was a sure sign of trouble because in the NBA rarely does the sum of part-time centers add up to a whole. But Schayes became the full-time starter eight games into the season (the same time Moe promoted Adams to a starting role) and put together his finest season, averaging 13.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. Suddenly, Schayes is a hot commodity. Heretofore he was known primarily as a friendly guy, an expert on stereo equipment and the son of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes of Syracuse Nationals fame (Danny's teammates call him Dolph). He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and his $425,000 salary will probably go close to—gulp!—$1 million, whether he signs with Denver or another club.
That the Nuggets needed production from Schayes was evident in Game 2. After scoring 26 points in the Nuggets' opening victory, he had only eight (and five rebounds) in the second game.
And clearly Denver would have to rely heavily on English and Lever, the club's quiet leaders. They were there for the Nuggets in Game 1 (English scored 28 points, while Lever had 18, including an 18-foot jump shot that gave Denver a three-point lead with 22 seconds left), but the two were MIA in Game 2, when together they shot a horrible 11 of 38 from the floor.
In spite of his team's strong showing in Denver, Bickerstaff, an intense bundle of nerves to begin with, worries about the Sonics. And with good reason, because they are young and volatile, and just as capable of coming apart as they were of putting it together last weekend. But the Sonics sure showed a lot of the right stuff in Games 1 and 2.
McKey (31) may be only a rookie, but he had a big hand in the Sonics' victory on Sunday.
Chambers (24) played in-your-face with Vincent in the opener.
Bickerstaff said he wanted to see passing, and McMillan (10) gladly obliged, as always.
Denver fans had been faithfully recording Adams's multiple three-point successes...
...only to see their team's long-distance threat fall flat in Game 1 against the Sonics.