March 16, 2002
Historically, plagues have been a significant part of the human condition. We all know of the biblical locusts and the black death in Europe during the middle ages. Basketball fans can now add the Seattle Supersonics' injury plague of 2002.
It started innocently enough, with Calvin Booth injured throughout much of the season. He is now officially out for the season, with word coming yesterday that he will have surgery this Tuesday. On Valentine's Day, Vin Baker went out with three dislocated toes. Perhaps that injury didn't fall into the normal meaning of the term plague, as the Sonics went on an 11-2 run in their first 13 games with Baker out. Then the injuries came in waves. Brent Barry sat out the Sonics' victory over Minnesota with the stomach flu, and during the first quarter, Earl Watson severely separated his shoulder, forcing him to join Baker and Booth on the injured list. Thursday against Charlotte, Vladimir Radmanovic's hustle allowed the Sonics to win, but it came at a heavy price. Although I reported in my column last week that Radmanovic's injury was not serious, it was determined later that day that Radmanovic would miss at least a week, and perhaps as long as three weeks of action.
That sent the Sonics into an important two-game road trip to Texas with just 10 players active, and an eight-man rotation. Then they came home last night, and though it didn't appear possible, things got worse. Just before halftime, starting forward Rashard Lewis headed to the locker room, an apparent victim of a separated shoulder. Lewis will undergo an MRI today and will not make the Sonics' trip to Los Angeles. Beyond that, his status is unknown. As if that wasn't enough, the plague struck again, with Peja Drobnjak landing awkwardly between two defenders and going down. Interestingly enough, the Wizards failed to score with a 5-on-4 advantage and then gave up a fast-break layup with Drobnjak rolling himself out of the way. Mercifully, a foul was also called, allowing Drobnjak to join nearly half the roster in the locker room. He would later return to the bench, but was finished for the game and will not play tonight.
Tonight, the Sonics will find themselves playing a critical game against the Los Angeles Clippers without six players, leaving only eight active. Of those players, one -- Randy Livingston -- was in the CBA eight days ago. One is Shammond Williams, who has suddenly not only returned to the rotation but become a player who finishes games. A third is Olumide Oyedeji, who saw a combined total of 16 minutes of playing time during the months of January and February combined. Even amongst the starters, Jerome James and Art Long entered this season with a combined total of 62 minutes NBA experience.
I hope my point here is clear -- because of injuries, this is no longer a playoff team. Yet they must be, because for all my optimism a week ago, the Sonics now find themselves in a vicious fight to make the playoffs. The youthful Clippers have caught fire, winning seven of eight and four in a row before a predictable loss to the Lakers last night. Instead of falling apart, as some might have expected, the Clippers are putting it together at the right time of the season. Like the Sonics, the Jazz had been struggling, losing four in a rwo before finally pulling out a difficult win at Detroit last evening, 100-97.
This combination has left the Sonics a half-game better than Utah in the race for the seventh seed, but -- even worse -- only two games better than the Clippers. The remaining schedules for each team:
The traditional schedule summary looks like this:
All told, the teams have pretty similar schedules, with each having nine home games remaining and about nine games against teams better than .500. The Sonics' two game advantage in this category over the Jazz is probably undercut by the fact that they have to play back-to-back more often (.5 is for the Sonics-Clippers matchup tonight). The Clippers, who play 13 of their last 16 games on one end or the other of a back-to-back, look to have the toughest time. On the other hand, the Clippers are just kids, and should have the easiest time with these kinds of games.
My objective (slightly pessimistic) predictions:
That would leave the fate of the Sonics and the Clippers in the hands of tiebreakers. Part of my prediction was that they'd split their final two games, leaving them even against each other as well as overall. Currently, the Sonics are a game worse in-conference than the Clippers, and a worse finish won't help this. Thus, for the time being, I am expecting the Sonics to miss the playoffs.
The really crucial games for all of these teams will be against each other. The Clippers play both Utah and Seattle twice, while the Sonics and Jazz play each other once. Any good Sonic fan knows that they might be unable to beat the Jazz even if the entire Utah starting five were injured. The Jazz have maintained near-complete dominance over the Sonics ever since game five of their 2000 playoff series (March 25). Call it the Chuck Person curse. Seattle simply must overcome this when these two teams meet up. Tonight, the Sonics and Clippers square of in a critical game, but with the injuries, I see little chance that the Sonics can steal a win. That makes the Sonic-Clipper matchup in KeyArena (April 8) another critical game.
What the Sonics particularly need is to get some bodies back. Drobnjak's injury does not look serious for the time being, with the hope that he will return Tuesday against Golden State. The severity of Lewis' injury is difficult to tell at the time being, and losing him for any serious period of time might end the Sonics' playoff hopes. Radmanovic, Baker, and Watson all seem between a week and two weeks away from return, with Baker perhaps the closest right now.
The Week that was:
The Sonics overcame their injury woes last Saturday night in a tight game against the best the Eastern Conference has to happen, the New Jersey Nets. It was a tight game all the way, with the Nets leading much of the fourth quarter, including a 90-89 advantage in the closing minutes after a Keith Van Horn dunk. From there on out, the Sonics went on a 7-0 run, getting two free throws from Rashard Lewis after a questionable call, a spinning layup by Gary Payton, and solid defense that held the Nets scoreless over the final minute.
Next up was the first of a Texas two-step against the red-hot Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks couldn't miss in the first half, scoring 72 points. Strong offensively themselves, the Sonics were down just 11 halfway through. In the third quarter, after looking like they were finished when they went down 18, the Sonics rallied on the back of Desmond Mason to get as close as four. However, they were done in by an inability to defend the three-pointer, with perennial Sonic-killer Nick Van Exel making three in the fourth quarter and Steve Nash another key one to give Dallas a 10-point lead. Near the end of the game, Nate McMillan was ejected, and he was even hotter afterward, saying that the Sonics had been unable to get a call against Dallas since Mark Cuban started tracking the referees, and wondering aloud whether the Sonics ought to do the same. McMillan would draw a $7,500 fine for his comments, as would Lewis for allegedly asking one of the officials during the game how much he had been paid (by the Mavericks).
A night later, with tired legs, the Sonics headed to Houston to take on the struggling Rockets. Again, they were done in by the opponent's outside shooting, with Cuttino Mobley scoring 38 points on 6 of 10 shooting from three-point range. Despite this fact, the Sonics still had a chance to win in the final minutes thanks to the solid play of guards Payton, Barry, and Mason. They led by seven during the fourth quarter, but Houston subsequently went on a 13-0 run and led by three with 10 seconds left when the Sonics got the ball back. Out of timeouts, the best shot the Sonics could get was a 25-foot three from the top of the key by Drobnjak, who is still looking for the first three of his NBA career. It came up short of everything, and the Sonics were swept aside on their road trip.
Returning home, the Sonics looked to have an easy game where they could get well against the Jordan-less Wizards. Of course, that was before the plague of injuries really took its toll. That said, the Sonics struggled in the first half, trailing much of the way and taking a one-point deficit to halftime. Without Lewis, the Sonics started to pull away in the third quarter behind the play of Barry, who had 16 points in the quarter, and Payton. When Oyedeji, getting rare playing time, put back a Payton miss at the buzzer, the Sonics led 75-69 going to the final period. However, in that final quarter, the Sonics were again killed by the outside shooting of a guard. This time, it was Washington's Tyronn Lue, who made 9 of 13 and 5 of 5 from beyond the arc in putting up what McMillan called, "Jordan-esque numbers," 26 points. Offensive rebounding was also a thorn in the Sonics' side, as the Wizards came up with 16 offensive boards and had a number of scores down the stretch on second chances. The Sonics' offense, relying far too much on Williams and Long, went stagnant down the stretch as the hot Barry got just one shot attempt in the final period, and the losing streak hit three.
With Watson injured, Williams has had an opportunity in recent weeks to reclaim his position as the backup to Payton. Though he has shown flashes of success, Williams' poor play has to be considered a primary cause in the Sonics' struggles. Offensively, Williams has been typically -- and consistently -- inconsistent. On the one hand, his contributions were invaluable against Charlotte, with many of his 16 points coming in overtime. On the other, since he's shot 7 of 26 for 22 points, with a pair of 0-for-6s included. Williams has shown an improved willingness to look to his teammates on offense, but on defense he has been nothing short of abysmal.
One play last night illustrated Williams' defensive problems. Williams doubled off Lue -- a 40% three-point shooter and he of the 26 points last night -- to double-cover Kwame Brown 17 feet away from the basket. It is true that Brown can be tentative offensively and turnover-prone, but the play was three points waiting to happen. The Sonics weren't done in on that play, but they were in the fourth quarter, when Williams' defensive wanderings cost the team on several threes. The same was true of Van Exel against the Mavericks.
At this point, I can't help but wonder if the Sonics might not be better off using Livingston instead of Williams as the backup point. Apparently, McMillan has had the same thoughts, based on his comments in today's News-Tribune. Livingston is not nearly as talented as Williams, but I believe he understands his role better. He would not force shots at the expense of Barry, Payton, or Mason, and by all accounts plays solid defense. It's not as crazy as it sounds at first.
Speaking of Mason, the biggest positive in this past week has been his play. Over the last four games, he's scored a total of 81 points (20.5 ppg) on 28 of 51 shooting. He's getting to the free throw line and making, 23 of 25 from the charity stripe in the stretch. When Mason is sticking his jumper, as he has been of late, he is very valuable offensively, and, given his defense, a super sixth man. If Desmond can continue to play at this level, as he did early in the season, the Sonics will be a very tough team to beat when they get healthy.
However, with Watson injured and Mason forced into a starting role by Lewis' injury, the Sonics do have a problem trying to find energy off the bench. Hopefully, Oyedeji can provide this with his unrelenting and reckless style.
It's been almost exactly a year since I took over the Sonics column at BskBALL.com. Looking back at my archive (which hasn't been updated in quite some time, I'm afraid), it's amazing how much things have changed over the past year. Why, in that first column, I argued for more playing time for Shammond Williams! It has, all things considered, been a pretty solid 12 months for the Sonics in my opinion. With young contributors like James, Radmanovic, Lewis, Mason, and Watson, the future looks much brighter for Seattle basketball than it did a year ago.
It's also been a good year for me, at least in terms of basketball writing. This column has, I hope, achieved some modest degree of success and popularity, certainly more than my predecessor, Fletch. I've also started a couple of basketball websites of my own, and, hopefully, made strides in my writing ability.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank BskBALL for giving me the opportunity to write about the Sonics and discover how much I enjoyed. I'd also like to thank anyone who has read the column and especially those who have taken the time to join me when the Sonics message boards here at BskBALL.com were hopping during the summer or who e-mailed me. I hope that we can enjoy another 12 months of Sonic basketball -- and, hopefully, a playoff run -- here at BskBALL.com.