The Seattle SuperSonics refer to the gods more often than a
Greek literature professor does, and in times of trouble they
sometimes turn to the voodoo of a guy named Otis the Witch
Doctor. There are more unseen forces at work around the Sonics
than in an episode of The X-Files. But Seattle would probably be
more at home in a segment of Unsolved Mysteries, because not
even the Sonics themselves can figure out why at one moment they
appear to be championship material and at the next they look
like...well, if the term chokers is too distasteful, let's just
say they sometimes appear to have obstructions in their throats
roughly the size of the Space Needle.
The Seattle players no longer dispute the notion that they are
utterly unpredictable. "You never know with us," says
forward-center Sam Perkins. "Some funky stuff goes on." But
there is a difference between the Seattle teams that flamed out
in the first round of the NBA playoffs in 1994 and '95 and those
that avoided--though narrowly--similar upsets last year and last
week: The Sonics now seem to embrace their tendency to back
themselves into a corner. Where they once seemed uncomfortable
walking a tightrope, they are now thrill seekers. "We're not
afraid to fail anymore," says forward Shawn Kemp. "We actually
like having our backs against the wall. We play better that way."
The best evidence of this is that Seattle is 5-1 over the last
two years in games in which a loss would have ended its season.
The two most recent of those victories came last week against
the seventh-seeded Phoenix Suns, who were on the brink of
upsetting the second-seeded Sonics in their best-of-five
first-round series. The Suns led two games to one before Seattle
recovered to win Games 4 and 5 and advance to the best-of-seven
Western Conference semifinals against the third-seeded Houston
Rockets. Seattle and Houston had identical 57-25 records during
the regular season, but Houston won three of four from Seattle
and thus had the home court advantage. The Rockets made the most
of it on Monday, easily winning 112-102 at the Summit. Game 2
was scheduled for Wednesday in Houston.
To earn the right to face Houston, Seattle had to withstand a
three-point heave by Suns guard Rex Chapman that miraculously
swished through with 1.7 seconds left and sent Game 4 into
overtime in Phoenix. "When that shot went in, I thought the gods
must be against us," said Sonics point guard Gary Payton after
Seattle rallied to win 122-115.
Then the Sonics had to survive a near collapse in Game 5, during
which they allowed the Suns to cut a 22-point halftime deficit
to five before Seattle pulled away for a 116-92 victory. "We're
better for having gone through this series," Sonics coach George
Karl said after Game 5. "You saw a team with chances to break
apart, but we never did."
Karl wasn't just practicing spin control; Seattle's recent
playoff history suggests that if it doesn't crack early, it
doesn't crack at all. The Sonics take time to hit their playoff
stride, as they showed last season when they struggled in the
first round against the Sacramento Kings but then swept the
Rockets and eventually extended the Chicago Bulls to six games
in the Finals. "Anytime you're trying to be a champion, there
are steps that have to be taken," says Karl. "We still have our
problems, but we've taken a step."
The next step will be a doozy. Seattle will need all the mental
toughness it can muster to overcome the experienced and
well-rested Rockets, who had five days off after their
first-round sweep of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Houston
team that Seattle swept in last season's playoffs didn't include
forward Charles Barkley, who averaged 20.5 points and 14.0
rebounds in the teams' four meetings this season.
As the playoff series proceeds, Barkley will try to help the
Rockets gain an even greater psychological edge. "The best thing
you can do against the Sonics is make them think," he says. The
Seattle players realize that. They know that having their
psychological temperature taken has become a rite of spring,
that in the playoffs their fans stop gnawing on their nails only
long enough to reach for the antacid. "We're probably going to
have that rap of being kind of shaky psychologically until we
retire or until we win a championship," says forward Detlef
Schrempf. "Everybody pulls out the psychological terms when they
talk about us, like we should be in therapy. We might have our
lapses, but we're not going to psych ourselves out or lose the
mental battle anymore."
Still, Karl concedes, "we haven't been as together and unified
this year as we were last." Seattle's turbulent season included
a 22-day holdout by Kemp at the start of training camp that was
the result of Kemp's unhappiness over the Sonics' salary
structure, particularly the seven-year, $35 million contract
given last summer to free-agent center Jim McIlvaine (who played
eight minutes against the Suns). Then there were the injuries to
Schrempf and guard Nate McMillan that caused the former to miss
17 games and the latter 42, and Kemp's repeated tardiness and
lackluster play near the end of the regular season. "After three
or four different nightmares, to win the Pacific Division and be
where we are shows how tough-minded we can be," Karl says.
But occasionally vestiges of the old, contentious Sonics
reappear. After Chapman burned Seattle for 42 points, including
a playoff-record nine three-pointers, in Phoenix's 106-101 win
in Game 1, Payton caused a bit of locker room tension when he
criticized his teammates for leaving Chapman open. That
brushfire was put out, but getting rid of the outmanned yet
persistent Suns wasn't nearly as easy.
Seattle likes to cause havoc with its aggressive trapping
defense, but in Phoenix the Sonics faced a club that likes chaos
even more than they do. Suns coach Danny Ainge turned Phoenix's
lack of low-post players into a strength, putting three and
often four guards on the floor at the same time. The Suns'
offense looked like an anthill after it had been kicked, with
small players scurrying all over the court, and if their style
seemed more suited to the playgrounds than the playoffs, so be
it. Phoenix forced Seattle's 6'10" forwards, Kemp and Schrempf,
to chase the 6'4" Chapman and 6'6" Wesley Person on the
perimeter, and the taller twosome looked like exasperated
parents trying to round up their children. The Suns also put the
ball in the hands of their pair of point guards, Kevin Johnson
and Jason Kidd, and watched them break down the Sonics defense
time after time. It wasn't until Game 5 that Seattle finally
slowed down Chapman--with the help of Otis the Witch Doctor, a
fan who placed the hex on Rex before the game--and held him to
16 mostly meaningless points.
The scrappy Suns' performance was even more impressive in light
of their 13 straight losses to open the regular season. (Ainge
replaced Cotton Fitzsimmons after Phoenix started 0-8.) Phoenix
was so bad in November that even Ainge's son Tanner couldn't
resist joking about them.
"Knock, knock," Tanner said to his father one day.
"Who's there?" said Danny.
The Suns became a force when they acquired Kidd from the Dallas
Mavericks on Dec. 26 and teamed him with Johnson. The two were
so impressive together--Johnson averaged 23.1 points at shooting
guard alongside Kidd--that it seems a shame that after 10
seasons Johnson, 31, appears intent on retiring. (He planned to
meet with president and chief executive officer Jerry Colangelo
this week to discuss his future.) After Game 5, in which he was
a subpar 8 for 27 from the field and 1 for 5 from beyond the
arc, Johnson said, "This is it. If God changes my heart, I'll
change my mind, but I don't see that happening. God gave me 10
great years. I have no regrets, only highlights."
The highlight of this series, though, was furnished by the
unheralded Chapman, whose running, over-the-shoulder
three-pointer in Game 4 will go down in Suns' lore with another
Phoenix miracle shot, Gar Heard's heave against the Boston
Celtics in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals. Chapman's playoff
performance wasn't enough to save the Suns, but it may do
wonders for his bank account. After the Miami Heat renounced
their rights to him last summer, he signed a one-year contract
with Phoenix for the league's minimum salary, $247,500. He
should be able to command substantially more on the open market
this off-season, but probably not from the Suns, who unless they
clear salary-cap room can offer him only a 20% raise, to
$297,000, for 1997-98. "I'd like to be back with the Suns,"
Chapman, a nine-year veteran, said after Game 5, "but they have
to consider all their options, and so do I."
The Sonics will probably see Chapman and the other Phoenix
guards in their dreams for some time to come. For Seattle, after
chasing the small Suns around for five games, the prospect of
facing Houston big men Barkley, center Hakeem (the Dream)
Olajuwon and forward-center Kevin Willis actually seemed
enticing. "I'm looking forward to banging with some big guys,"
said Kemp after Game 5. "The Suns, they're so little that when
you touch 'em, a lot of times they just fall over. You kind of
have to watch where you step."
The best news for the Sonics may be that Kemp seems to have
shaken the malaise that befell him late in the regular season.
He averaged 22.2 points and 14.4 rebounds against Phoenix,
numbers he must come close to duplicating for Seattle to get
past Houston. "Shawn is back," says Payton. "He'll come up big.
I think he actually plays better against Dream and Barkley."
The Sonics' biggest concern against Houston may be their own
perimeter defense. Seattle didn't do a very good job of
contesting the Suns' three-point attempts during most of the
series, and the Rockets have marksmen in point guard Matt
Maloney (12 for 21 on three-point attempts against Minnesota)
and swingman Mario Elie (8 for 12), who make defenses pay for
double-teaming Olajuwon inside. Seattle will also be looking for
more contributions from its bench than it received in the first
round, and guard David Wingate's performance in Game 5 against
Phoenix was an indication that the Sonics may get it. Wingate
had 19 points and 10 rebounds against the Suns, including some
crucial jump shots in the second half. Perkins, 35, also came to
life with 31 points off the bench in the final two games of the
series against the Suns, after Phoenix had made him look
antiquated in the first three. "I feel like Old Man Winter," he
said before Game 4. "Guys are helping me off the bench like I
can't do it myself."
Perkins would fit right in on the venerable Rockets. Houston
doesn't have Phoenix's young legs, but it does have the
rebounding, shooting and experience to make the Sonics pay for
their lapses more than Phoenix did. Chapman, however, believes
that Seattle can handle Houston and anyone else in the Western
"I see them going back to the Finals," he said after Game 5.
"They're the best team in the West." Then he added the qualifier
that for the Sonics is always easier said than done. "All they
have to do," Chapman said, "is keep their heads on straight."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Kemp recovered from his late-season malaise to score 22.2 points a game against the Suns. [Shawn Kemp in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Chapman's answered prayer sent Game 4 into OT and may have given him a shot at a big-bucks contract. [Nate McMillan, Rex Chapman and Hersey Hawkins in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Sticky defense by the likes of Hersey Hawkins ultimately sent Johnson packing, perhaps for good [Kevin Johnson and Hersey Hawkins in game]