March 9, 2002

Heating up down the stretch

The primary argument used by Vin Baker fans to explain away the Sonics' superb record in his absence was that his backups and replacements, Peja Drobnjak, Jerome James, Art Long, and Vladimir Radmanovic, could not keep up their performance, and after a few games, the team would falter.

So far, they still have yet to skip a beat. It's been 12 games now since Baker went down with dislocated toes, and the Sonics have faced down a lengthy East Coast road trip, additional injuries, and -- even more difficult for them -- home games, and have played superbly by any measuring stick save for one.

Despite how hot the Sonics have been, they have had a difficult time gaining ground in the race for Western Conference playoff positioning. Why? Because as hot as the Sonics have been, the Portland Trailblazers have been far hotter. The Blazers have made fools out of the 'experts' who said that the team's chemistry would doom them, that Maurice Cheeks -- who is as good of an in-game coach as I have seen all season -- was incapable of leading the team, and that they would go down in flames. Well, with 12 straight wins, including one of the Sonics' two defeats in the last 12 games, the Blazers have emerged not only as the class of the five teams fighting for playoff positioning at the bottom of the West, but quite possibly a challenger to the top teams.

So, despite the Sonics' success, they've been able to move up only to the seventh seed, taking the position when the Utah Jazz lost last night to the New York Knicks. If the playoffs were to begin today (and don't you hate that phrase?), the Sonics would face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, a team they have split two games with so far this season.

Although they haven't moved up the standings very much, and look unlikely to move any higher with Portland's fine play, one positive has come out of the Sonics' play -- they have put a large distance between themselves and the teams on the outside of the playoff hunt looking in, the Clippers and Phoenix. The Sonics are now a full four games ahead of the .500 Clippers (31-31), and another game ahead of the Suns (30-32), who have struggled since trading Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers to Boston. A playoff spot looks pretty secure right now, although one can't help but wonder what might be; were Seattle in the East, they'd be in a spot to take home court advantage in the first round.

The only negative in the last week has been a sudden surge of injuries. Brent Barry missed Tuesday's win over Minnesota with the stomach flu, returning to practice the next day. During the game, Earl Watson suffered a separated shoulder when he was knocked down on a screen. On Thursday, Rashard Lewis went to the hospital because of weakness from similar flu-like symptoms but still started and played heavily. Another rookie went down during the game, with Radmanovic suffering a bruised toe when he crashed into the crowd to save a loose ball.

The only serious injury amongst these was Watson's separated shoulder (though Radmanovic will likely miss tonight's game with New Jersey). Watson will be out for two to four weeks, and was placed on the injured list yesterday. To take his spot, the Sonics signed former Phoenix, Atlanta, and Houston guard Randy Livingston to a 10-day contract. Watson's spot in the rotation goes back to Shammond Williams, who finally has a chance to display the talent that he has shown the last two years.

More bad news on the injury front was less unexpected. The Tacoma News-Tribune reported yesterday that Calvin Booth will have season-ending surgery on a tendon in his right ankle. He will likely miss between three-and-a-half and six months, with the worst case scenario being that he is not ready to play until training camp next season. In my opinion (and certainly this is tempered by the fact that I know so little about the injury situation), this is the right move. Instead of coming back and risking even more injury to the ankle, Booth will be able to get healthy for next season. As it is, the Sonics aren't particularly hard up for big men, with James and Drobnjak providing quality minutes. As well, like it or not, Baker will be back sometime. Baker wants to be back out on the court in two weeks, but the coaching staff apparently sees his return as likely closer to a month away, which would bring him back just prior to the end of the regular season.

The Sonics closed up their five-game East coast trip with one of their better defensive efforts of the season (and, statistically speaking, their best) against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday afternoon. Seattle's aggressive double-teams were the bane of likely Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol, who went 0 for 6 from the field and scored just five points, although he did grab 12 rebounds. The Sonics took advantage of this defense to get out on the break, scoring numerous easy points and also converting in transition. The end result was a 20-point lead late in the third quarter, and an eventual 101-76 victory that allowed Nate McMillan to rest his starters and get Olumide Oyedeji in the game.

Two days later, the Sonics returned home to face a tough foe in the Minnesota Timberwolves on TBS. It was the first -- and hopefully not the last -- time the Sonics have been on national TV this season, and they showed the country what they've been missing. First, it took a little luck at the end of the first quarter. With Barry out and Watson already injured, the Sonics were thin in the backcourt before Gary Payton nearly picked up a double-technical foul with Anthony Peeler. It would have been Payton's second T, forcing him to the locker room. However, when the referees were alerted to the fact that they'd be putting East coast fans to bed by sending Payton away in the first quarter of the game, the call was reversed and Peeler alone got the T, sending the Timberwolves into a tizzy. A 10-point second quarter neutralized the Sonics' strong shooting start and put the Wolves in command, where they stayed until midway through the third quarter the Sonics went on an extended run. Seattle was able to stay up one with Payton resting early in the fourth quarter, and after his return unleashed an 11-0 run that put away Minnesota for an important home win over a tough opponent. Payton struggled with his shot, making just 6 of 25, and Radmanovic picked up the slack with a career-high 21 points.

Thursday night, the Sonics came out slowly against the Charlotte Hornets, and appeared to coast through a first half that ended with them on top. In the second half, however, Charlotte took control of the game's pace and momentum, and built a 10-point lead with three minutes left in the game, making it look like the end the Sonics' mini two-game win streak. Two straight scores cut the lead to six before Hornet star Baron Davis missed both of his free throw attempts. On the second, Desmond Mason and Jamaal Magloire were called for a double foul (and a double technical), forcing a jump ball at half court. Lewis sent the ball too hard towards the sideline, but Radmanovic dove into the crowd to recover it, coming up limping. Payton made one free throw to get the lead to five with under a minute left, and the Sonics caught a break when the ball came loose and Williams came up with it. The ball was worked to Lewis in the quarter, and he made a three with a hand in his face to cut the lead to two. Davis did the Sonics another favor with two missed free throws, and they had a chance to tie -- or win -- with 10 seconds left. Payton got the ball and forced a badly missed three point try, but Mason was there, soaring over everyone else on the court to throw the ball into the hoop with his left hand as time expired, forcing overtime. Both teams struggled offensively, and it was tied at 87 when Williams drove for a six-footer to put the Sonics ahead for good. He then made three of four free throw tries as the Sonics held on, 92-89.

On the one hand, the Sonics probably should not have been down 10 points near the end of the game, and would not have had they played better. On the other hand, their final eight minutes were fantastic, outscoring the Hornets 17-4 to take the game -- four points in eight minutes! As well, it's important that the Sonics are again winning close games at home. After a tough month of February at home, with the Sonics going just 3-4 at home, with all the losses closely contested. The Sonics have now won their last three home games, all of them tight in the fourth quarter. This will build confidence for this young Sonic team as they head towards the end of the season and hopefully the playoffs. If they could combine their unbelievable road play of late with strong home play, the sky is the limit.