April 22, 2002
So, the Sonics are back into the playoffs after a one-year absence. That they would be in the playoffs was pretty much a certainty the last time I put fingers to keyboard for this column, a little over two weeks ago, but the Sonics did take their sweet time in making things official. That finally happened on the 8th against the team that was giving the Sonics chase, the Los Angeles Clippers, with a two-point fourth-quarter Sonics win making things official.
At that point, it looked pretty clear that the Sonics would take the seventh seed, but they didn't help themselves much by dropping three more in a row after beating the Clippers, just as they had before the game. That meant losing at Phoenix, getting absolutely destroyed by the Dallas Mavericks, and losing at the Los Angeles Lakers. Nevertheless, the door was still open for the Sonics to be the seventh seed on the last day of the regular season. All that needed to happen was for the San Antonio Spurs to beat the Jazz in Utah and the Sonics to take care of business against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Key.
The Spurs finished their end of the deal with a Tony Parker fastbreak score sealing the Midwest Division in their favor by the time the Sonics went to halftime with the Grizzlies. And by that point, any doubt in their own game had pretty much been removed, what with them almost leading by 20 points. So it soon became clear that the Sonics would take on the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
That had to be construed as a victory, if only in the fact that the Spurs aren't the Dallas Mavericks, who the team would probably go to about any lengths to avoid. When I discussed possible opponents in my last column, I came out against the Mavs as an opponent, and that was merely backed up first by Coach Nate McMillan's comments when he began publicly talking about potential opponents and then by the whooping the Mavericks admonished to the Sonics -- despite playing without Dirk Nowitzki.
In that column, I did eventually come to the conclusion that the Sonics were probably best off taking the eighth seed and playing Sacramento, but, given more time to think about it, I would probably go with San Antonio as the best possible opponent despite their strong finish to the season (sweeping April, 9-0). Recently, the Sonics proved to both themselves and the Spurs that they could play with the two-time defending division champs, winning in Seattle and taking the Spurs down to the final seconds in San Antonio -- despite playing both games without Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic.
That should not, however, be construed as meaning that I really think the Sonics will win this series. It's a bit late to be making predictions now, as this column has been pushed back far too long because I've had the flu, but I've maintained for the last few days now that I think this series will go to San Antonio in four games. I think the Sonics will most likely play well enough at home not to be swept, but even taking this series five games seems like too much to ask from a Seattle squad that hasn't really played a good game against a good opponent since playing the Spurs in San Antonio.
There are those out there, including experts like Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum and NBC's Tom Tolbert (on second thought, can Tolbert really be considered an expert?) that have picked the Sonics to shock the world and pull off this upset.
Their case was not particularly helped by game one. After a solid first half in which they evened up the Spurs at 52-all, the Sonics were completely demolished in every sense of the word in the second half. A 37-8 run that put the Spus in command was so long that perhaps a more apt description might be conveyed by the word 'marathon' as opposed to run.
The Spurs were truly clicking on all cyllinders in beating the Sonics on Saturday, despite the absence of David Robinson for all but seven minutes with a persistent sore back that held him out of the last two regular-season games. The key was the contributions of the San Antonio guards, particularly 19-year-old rookie Tony Parker.
After Parker shot just 29% from the field against the Sonics in the regular season and 41% overall, it was quite obvious that the Sonics' strategy would be to make the dimnutive rookie beat them in this series. In game one, that backfired, with Parker making nine of 12 attempts and all three of his three-pointers, finishing with 21 critical points. Two of the threes were back-breaking momentum-killers as San Antonio ran away with the game in the third quarter.
Smith too was a major factor, though not quite as unexpectedly. The NBA's regular-season three-point percentage leader, Smith dropped three from behind the arc as well, in five tries, and had 17 points. Between them, Smith and Parker ended up with 38 points, while the Sonics' guards -- who averaged about 15 more points per game than the San Antonio starting backcourt during the regular season -- scored just 27 points. Gary Payton, who had 19 on 8 of 13 shooting, was held down mostly by limited minutes (34), not seeing the court in the fourth quarter.
Brent Barry is a different issue altogether. Not only is Barry being defended by defensive stopper Bruce Bowen, as the Spurs did in the second half of their April 3 win, but Barry also seems to be struggling with injuries and fatigue. In the month of April, Barry has only outscored his 14 and change regular season average on one occasion, and suffered through 7 of 25 shooting in back-to-back games against Phoenix and Dallas, uncharacteristic for the rare guard who shot better than 50% from the field. As Barry goes, so go the Sonics, and in April that's been going downhill, with Barry averaging 12.2 points per game and the team going just 2-7.
That's especially bad news for the Sonics because, in my opninion, the outcome of this series rests entirely on the guard matchup. If the two backcourts play to regular season form from here on out, the series goes four with the Sonics winning once at home, as I see it. If the Spurs' backcourt can play even with the Sonics, they roll in a sweep, with things continuing to be ugly if they actually better them. Only if the Sonics' backcourt completely dominates offensively -- try doubling up the Spurs' duo in scoring -- does the team have a chance at actually winning the series.
I don't see it, if only partially because the Sonics' backcourt has been a sieve defensively at the end of the season. Quick guards like Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury have waltzed into the lane almost at will, forcing other Seattle defenders to rotate off of their players, leaving those players (see Mobley, Cuttino; Peeler, Anthony; Majerle, Dan) open for threes or interior players alone for dunks.
That was a significant part of the appeal of the Spurs as a playoff opponent, seeing how the guards and small forward Bowen are a secondary part of their offense. However, that didn't seem to help on Saturday.
This is all not to say that there weren't encouraging things for Sonics fans to be taken from game one, starting with the injury situation. Both Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic were assumed to be lost until at least game three after a pessimistic Seattle media reported on their situation on Thursday night. Some have theorized that this might have been a 'smoke screen' on the part of McMillan to try to surprise San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich with their use. Whether that's the case or the change was due merely to the healing power of the playoffs, Lewis and Radmanovic both made miraculous recoveries in time to play in game one.
Lewis in particular looked sharp after an 10-game absence during which the Sonics' 4-6 record provided evidence of his value to the club which will certainly come in handy during contract negotiations this summer. Quickly after checking into the game, Lewis found himself part of a two-on-two fast break and had to lift off of his injured ankle. When he did this without trouble, drawing a foul, it was clear that he would be of help to the team, if not at 100%. All in all, it was a strong 21-minute run for Lewis, who had 13 points.
Radmanovic was not quite as effective in his 10 minutes of play, but he was out there.
The biggest positive for the Sonics in game one was the surprisingly effective play of forward Vin Baker, a surprise because of his poor play over the last month since returning from his dislocated toes. The one team Baker really seemed to have success against was San Antonio, doing as good of a job as any player on the Seattle roster in defending Tim Duncan, but I remained unconvinced. When questioned prior to the series about whether I felt Baker would be a factor, I concluded that I felt he had quit on the team, based largely on comments made to reporters after the New York game in which Baker talked about how he'd like to play for the Knicks next season. The comments were ripe with treason against his teammates and seemed to indicate a player who was thinking about next season before this was over.
For whatever reason -- Baker himself has given credit to a conversation with McMillan on Friday after practice -- he came out Saturday looking like an entirely different player. He scored in the post against the Spurs' talented inside players with ease, and generally battled Duncan, who did most of his scoring in the early going, to a standoff.
However, there was a bit of a downside to this, in that the Sonics went away from what had allowed them to take the lead before Baker entered the game, good ball movement (hand-in-hand with good movement without the ball) and midrange jumpers which were falling. Though the Sonics were able to remain effective offensively because of Baker, they fell apart in the third quarter when he did not start, settling for long jumpers and playing a one-on-one style, pounding the ball into the court. This is the age-old Baker dilemma -- even when he is playing well, his style just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of this Sonic squad. Nevertheless, we'll take the play because the Sonics need all the help they can get in trying to move Baker this summer. Don't count on any guarantees from this column this year.
Can the Sonics win this series? Yes, in my opinion, they still have a shot, though not a large one (certainly more than an annoying Hannah Storm gave them credit for on Saturday, mocking Tolbert's pick), regardless of what happened in game one. I personally see this series going the Utah of 2000 route for the Sonics if they do make a strong play for it.
If you can't remember back two years (and if so, you need to lay off the drinking), the Sonics came into that series reeling after a poor April as well, with even more turmoil based on the fact that Ruben Patterson, Baker, and Barry were benched for the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs in favor of reserves Lewis, Lazaro Borrell, and Shammond Williams. Lewis' ascension to the starting lineup made a lot of sense, by the way, but the others were mostly Paul Westphal meddling.
The Sonics went into Utah and dropped the first two games of the series by double-digits, though neither were quite as bad blowouts as Saturday. However, there was certainly more turmoil and frustration. A report in the Tacoma News-Tribune by Frank Hughes claimed that Chuck Person checked himself into game two against the Jazz without Westphal's knowledge. Person and Westphal both angrily denied the report, both calling into local talk-radio station KJR to do so publicly. Person went so far as to claim that the media was the reason the Sonics were struggling.
Despite all this, a strategy change -- Westphal began heavily using Lewis and Patterson together -- several days off, and the return to Seattle helped the Sonics wrest momentum of the series away from Utah, with a pair of easy victories of their own forcing the series back to Salt Lake City for a decisive game five. In that game, the Sonics nearly pushed the Jazz out of the playoffs a year before they would finally be unable to survive a game five (they had played the Kings in a decisive first-round game the year before) against Dallas. The Sonics trailed by three with possession and less than 10 seconds left. Person ended up with the final shot, which rattled out. Seattle may not have won the series, but they ended it on a positive note and a far cry from the turmoil after two games.
There are already parallels between the series, such as Baker perhaps being reinserted into the starting lineup tonight -- just as he was for game two of that series. Oddly enough, this series also follows the exact same Saturday-Monday-Saturday-Wednesday-Friday scheduling.
So just because the Sonics fall -- even hard -- tonight does not mean that they still might not make this thing interesting. They've won both matchups with San Antonio at home, and four days rest will do much good for Lewis and Radmanovic.
I want to discuss one final thing before I conclude this column, and that's Desmond Mason. He's really quite an enigma in my mind right now. In the six games the Sonics have played since my last column, Mason's scoring numbers have gone 36-8-11-12-33-9. Talk about an interesting progression -- twice he's bettered his career high (previously 25), and in the other two games he hasn't even bettered his 12.4 season average. I wrote earlier in this column about how as Barry went, so went the Sonics, but perhaps it would be more accurate to write the same about Mason. In the Sonics' two wins in the span, he's averaged 34.5 points per game. In the four losses, he's averaged 10 points per game.
Perhaps the key to Sonic victory is quite simple then -- as long as Mason scores at least 30 points, they're fine. Digging deeper, what I think this really illustrates is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality that Mason's game has taken on of late, with him increasingly dependent on his jumper. When the jumper is going, Mason is able to fill up the scoreboard with ease. When it's not, he struggles. One thing that particularly impressed me about Mason's 33 point outburst in the season finale was the way it was done. Instead of starting out with the jumper, Mason opened the game by taking the ball to the lane and getting easy shots, especially in transition. Once he settled in, he started to go to the jumper, which was silky-smooth.
I think that Mason can do the same in this series. He's being defended by Smith, who has had knee problems and struggles with his lateral quickness. Mason can get by him to the rim, and his leaping ability should negate the effect of shot-blockers Duncan and perhaps Robinson. Then, once he gets going, should he turn to the jumper, not the other way around.