February 4, 2002

Sonic roller coaster causes fans to scream

You think it's hard to be a Sonics fan this season? It most decidedly is . . . but it's doubly hard having to write about this team that seems to find new ways to defy logical reasoning every time out. After all, the Sonics may be jerking your emotions around, but your opinions aren't recorded for posterity and others to mock. I have to face the fact that as soon as words come off my keyboard and onto the internet they're quite often already outdated.

Two and a half weeks ago, I wrote about the Sonics' horrendous play in losing a comfortable 13-point lead at halftime in Denver. I wrote bitterly about Nate McMillan's coaching and wondered whether the Sonics might ever again beat a quality team. Unsurprisingly, that precipitated four wins in five games, as the Sonics headed out on the road with impressive results. Optimism abounded in the city of Seattle, as fans started wondering about playoff matchups and whether it was possible the Sonics could make the Western Conference Finals. Quite logically, the Sonics returned home for a three game homestand and . . . dropped all three games, including arguably their most embarrassing loss to the season, losing another 13-point lead, this one after three quarters, by giving up 41 fourth-quarter points to the NBA's worst team, the Chicago Bulls.

To quote Jim Mora, "Playoffs? Playoffs? We'll be lucky to win another game!"

Fortunately, with an 82 game season, the Sonics will win another game. The playoffs are another question. A week ago, they were the sixth seed; now the Sonics are number nine and a half game away from the tenth slot.

The more pressing issue for the time being is getting to the All-Star break, which will mercifully pause the season next weekend. The Sonics play twice between now and then, heading to Oakland to take on the Golden State Warriors and then returning home for the second of a back-to-back against the team they trail by one-half game for the eighth seed, the Phoenix Suns.

I could sit here and write about how the Sonics will probably fail to bring their best effort in those two games, extending their losing streak to a season-high five games before fans get to seriously ponder why Steve Francis is starting ahead of Gary Payton. I could write about how McMillan's inability to motivate the team for a must-win game against Chicago indicates that his growth as a coach has not been nearly as fast as one might have hoped or expected. I could write about the fact that Rashard Lewis' inability to step up his effort in any of these games indicates that he should be dealt as opposed to receiving a max contract. I could write about how the Sonics dearth of big men dooms them.

But I know that if I write those things, not 24 hours later the Sonics will play an excellent game against the Golden State Warriors, they'll follow it up with a victory against the Suns in front of a raucous home crowd, and will hit the break on Cloud Nine. Not that this outcome would upset me, of course, but I'd prefer to avoid looking like an incompetent moron in print.

So I should write about how we shouldn't worry; how things will turn out okay, and everyone will live happily ever after, right? Well, I'm concerned that writing those things would doom them to not happening.

In the end, the important thing to remember is something that my good friend and fellow SonicsCentral.com columnist, Heavy D, has been pointing out since the beginning of the season. The important thing is to avoid overreacting to any stretch which the Sonics encounter and remember that things will all even out . . . as they literally have so far this season with a 23-23 record.

I've learned this lesson too, so I'm not going to overreact and write about firing Nate McMillan and trading the entire roster.

That said, there are some important and troubling trends which have emerged from the last three losses.

Lack of Gary Payton Intensity - You couldn't tell it if you just looked at the stat line (partially because of some rather generous scoring, in my own humble opinion), but Payton had a rather horrible week. The Sonics as a team largely build off of the energy provided by Payton, and this week he was about as active as Partick Ewing last year. That killed the team during the second half, as they lost seemingly comfortable leads. Chicago guard Ron Artest had eight steals (!) against the Sonics, most while defending Payton. The most damning piece of evidence came near the end of the Bulls game. The Sonics still had a chance to make a comeback when Payton brought the ball aross halfcourt . . . and dribbled it directly out of bounds. The Payton I've come to know and love doesn't make unforced errors.

Center Regression - Art Long emerged as a useful starter for the Sonics in December, but he has of late returned to the form he displayed in the early part of the season when most fans cursed his name and playing time. He can't make a five footer, turns the ball over by trying to do too much, and fouls every other time downcourt. Peja Drobnjak can't make a jumper, which makes his value dubious at best. Jerome James has his moments, but also has moments where you wonder if he's ever picked up a basketball before in his life. Calvin Booth needs to return, but he's only barely out of his cast.

Slow-down pace - The Sonics continue to play slow, halfcourt games which are not only aesthetically unpleasing but also run contrary to their skill set. This is a team largely composed of thoroughbreads, but they're being forced to run distance races, and that doesn't make sense. I'm sorry, but throwing the ball in to Vin and seeing what happens (20 points one half, two the next) is not a better idea than getting out on the break. Good things happen when you run. . . .

These are not incurable. Payton's return to Oakland will likely ensure greater focus, it only takes one center getting going, and Nate could flip the switch at any moment.

So let's not jump off the bandwagon yet, but also turn a critical eye to whatever results the Sonics provide in the coming weeks.