April 30, 2002 (column #x)

All in all, Sonics' backs to the wall

One thing that I had forgotten about five-game series is how much they can change after every game. In this case, it's not just the typically short memory possessed by most fans, but mathematically sound. For example, my statistical calculations revealed that a game two win for the Sonics would increase their chances of taking the series from 7.5% to 40%. You think that might affect fans' perceptions?

And so, it was only predictable that when the Sonics made the necessary adjustments to avoid the devestating third quarter that ended their hopes of taking game one and somehow outplayed the veteran San Antonio team down the stretch, that Sonic fans would latch onto the success joyously. After all, it was a surprise after game one that the Sonics could legitimately compete with San Antonio for four quarters. And suddenly, having claimed home-court advantage, Seattle could legitimately lay hope to winning the series without returning to San Antonio.

Just as suddenly as that 40% had become tangible to the Sonics and their fans, it was sliced in a depressing game three. As effectively as Seattle head man Nate McMillan made adjustments to make his team competitive in a hostile Alamodome, so too did San Antonio's Gregg Popovich to ensure they would have no prayer even with a loud KeyArena behind them. The Spurs, angry that their home-court advantage had been usurped by the infidel invaders from the north, showed little mercy in picking apart Seattle on both ends of the court and exposing the Sonics' shortcomings.

Games two and three were diametrically opposed in most respects, but none moreso than the emotional states experienced by Sonics fans. Game two began, at least for me, with a general pessimism which was reinforced when San Antonio took a 14-point lead after one quarter. Around this point, I entered a chat room at SonicsCentral with some fellow Sonic loyalists. And with a 10-0 run precipitated by Tim Duncan's absence from the lineup, the Sonics suddenly drew back near the Spurs. By the third quarter's start, there was a cautious optimism -- after all, the Sonics had been close after one half in game one before being blown out. Slowly, Seattle's seemingly overmatched players kept the game close. Increased optimism, though the caution remained. I recall remarking that a San Antonio run was inevitable, and I felt it was upon us when the Spurs tied the game on a fast-break score by Tony Parker. Again, not so; the Sonics answered to take a lead into the fourth quarter.

After getting through that all-important third quarter, I was quite convinced that the Sonics would not fold. This game was going to be decided in the final moments, up for grabs as a potential shift in series momentum. What really proved to me that this would be an epic game was a sequence at the start of the third quarter. Danny Ferry gave San Antonio a lead with a three, but rookie Vladimir Radmanovic answered right back with a triple of his own to put the Sonics back in front. It was on! The fourth quarter seems almost a blur just one week later, but certain key facts are still evident. The foremost feeling near the end was nervous excitement; could the Sonics really hang on? Then there was defense, in spades. Seattle is hardly known as a defensive-minded squad, but they held the Spurs without a field goal in the final 5:24. On the other end, two players stood out -- Rashard Lewis and Gary Payton. If it wasn't Payton holding the ball for twenty seconds before nailing a key basket over Parker, it was Lewis too fast or too big for whoever was defending him as he scored 11 of his 19 points in the period. Briefly, there was panic after Vin Baker followed Jerome James to the bench with his sixth foul. Radmanovic would have to defend Tim Duncan? It was tough to imagine that as a positive. But it was too late; the Sonics hit their free throws before Desmond Mason capped the game with a remarkable 360 dunk.

When I arrived at the KeyArena thirty minutes before tipoff of game three, the excitement in the arena was palpable. It had been two years since I or the vast majority of the crowd -- Bill Walton and his 'Love it Live' tour excepted -- had seen a playoff game, and we were ready to yell our lungs out to ensure our team a victory and a 2-1 lead in the series. For the first time all season, the crowd was, as one, on its feet for the Sonics' starting lineup.

The game started shortly thereafter, but the party atmosphere continued. First a rare three from Mason in the corner, then Payton threw in a nearly-unmakable fadeaway jumper. Baker scored on a power move, and Payton made a jumper and stole the ensuing inbounds pass. Finally, Baker scored a jumper and the Spurs were forced to take a timeout, trailing 11-2 early.

Only 3:49 had run off the game clock, but it had seemed like an eternity; I was already horse. For a moment or two, I permitted by typically-pessimistic mind to wander. Might the Sonics blow the Spurs out in this game? Run them back to San Antonio with doubts in their minds about their ability to play the Sonics? Close it out on Wednesday and bring on the Lakers?

But then Parker scored. Then Duncan. Parker. Duncan. They took turns taking advantage of the Sonics' defense; the Spurs' only problem on offense seemed to be deciding exactly which 'soft underbelly' of Seattle's defense to attack -- porous perimeter defense which had allowed many a quick point like Parker to waltz into the lane at will, or the Sonics' inability to defend Duncan one-on-one and unwillingness to double too quickly for fear of being buried by a barrage of threes?

The early lead was quickly erased; 11-2 turned into 12-11 San Antonio. But surely all was not lost, for a similar thing had happened when these two foes had last met in KeyArena, with a trio of runs inside the first quarter alone.

When did I know it was over? A lot earlier than most of my fellow fans, I must say. To me, the turning point, the critical mass, if you will, came when Duncan was removed from the game early in the second quarter -- I think the Sonics trailed by two or three when he left. At the same time, Payton was taken out, a bit of strategy I'm sure in hindsight that Coach McMillan would undo if he had the chance. The Sonics were left with a lineup of Brent Barry, who can no longer score; Randy Livingston, who never could; Vladimir Radmanovic, who is clearly not 100%; Desmond Mason, who has struggled of late; and Jerome James, who chose a poor day to seem completely uninterested in the game. Not only did Seattle not make up ground in Duncan's absence, they yielded it to San Antonio. And if they could not succeed against a Spur lineup lacking the team's best and second-best players, what would they do when Duncan returned?

The answer was essentially what I expected, though a little more dramatic -- fold like a dot-com a few years back. The next eight minutes were complete and total domination exerted by a more experienced and more intelligent team. Four points became six, became nine, became 11 . . . and suddenly the Sonics were down 20 points. We had been sitting on our hands most of the quarter, with glum expressions involuntarily foisted upon our faces. When I made the comment to those sitting around me that the team needed to get the lead under 20 by halftime, the game was over, sure as the sky is blue and the sun rises in the east(ern conference).

Seattle began the third quarter with a stop and score -- 'slicing' the lead to 'but' 16 -- and the crowd, eager to cheer anything, including the sappy halftime act, erupted. Momentarily, it seemed that momentum might be turning back in favor of the home team. But it was just a tease, and Rashard Lewis' injury on the ensuing play sealed the outcome which was not really in doubt. Without Lewis, who had been struggling as it was, the Sonics were stuck with almost no offense whatsoever. In the end, after the final two quarters had finished meandering along for what assuredly only seemed like forever, only Baker, with 10 points, had joined Payton's 20 in double figures. But even that was a mirage; he shot five for 14, though that actually wasn't half-bad considering the efforts of his teammates. The Sonics shot 36% as a team, San Antonio 53%.

What made the loss particularly troublesome as a fan was that it lacked almost any redeeming aspect. At least the previous Saturday's blowout defeat had some bright spots; the Sonics had been tied halfway through, and Baker had stunned everyone with 22 points. It is far easier to dismiss one poor quarter -- even one amazingly poor quarter -- as simple randomness than it is domination from whistle to whistle. In game one, the Sonics outscored San Antonio 76-72 in the other three quarters besides the third. While domination was not extended for quite 48 minutes in game three, even taking out the largely-decisive second quarter yields a 68-57 count in the Spurs' favor.

Individually, no Sonic played well. Payton's 20 points required 21 shots, and his defense on Parker was awful at best. Though Bruce Bowen certainly deserves much credit for harrassing Barry throughout the series, Barry has also missed open shots with nobody around. The verdict in these parts continues to be fatigue or undisclosed injury, or both. He seems unlikely to break my pessimistic prophesy that he would not crack double-digits in this series. Lewis' poor play in game three has, for reasons we'll get into, been overshadowed. Baker struggled with his shooting and grabbed just one rebound. The bench, when called upon, providing little of anything.

No matter what Sonic perspective is taken, there cannot be anything positive derived from Saturday's game.

Worse still, Lewis' injury has proven to be far more serious than initially suspected. His shoulder is dislocated, and he is finished for three weeks or, quite possibly, one game. His injury even raises long-term questions, as he may need surgery this summer if rehab proves ineffective. As to how this will affect his impending free agency . . . well, that's anyone's guess at this point.

More topically, Lewis' absence likely dooms the Sonics in game four, especially because it is compounded by Radmanovic's lingering ailment from a sprained toe. Though Radmanovic suited up and played in game three's first half, he was not nearly at full strength and struggled on both ends of the court. To raise another problem, with Barry struggling and the small forwards ailing, the Sonics suddenly have almost no three point threats on their roster. Payton is not a particularly effective shooter from behind the arc, and Mason, on the rare occasions he shoots threes, does so still worse. Livingston? You're kidding, right? Shammond Williams is the only long range shooter extraordinaire left unaffected, but if he gets into game four, you can be assured the Sonics will be packing up for the summer.

The likely move with Lewis sidelined is for the Sonics to get bigger, with Drobnjak re-entering the rotation behind Radmanovic, who will give it a go as the starter at power forward. Having Drobnjak on the floor, or Olumide Oyedeji, would help the Sonics combat their difficulties in defending the pick-and-roll run to Utah esque perfection by Parker and Duncan throughout game three. He would give the Sonics a second player on the court capable of defending Duncan, meaning a switch on the pick-and-roll is not a guaranteed two points for San Antonio.

What to do on offense is a more difficult question yet. The tired old rationale brought out by the coaching staff and the media for the offensive struggles is ball movement; but all the ball movement in the world isn't going to make a shot for a player. Even when the Sonics managed to sneak into the lane, they flustered in the face of aggressive Spur defense and threw up wild shots will little chance to go in. In fear of the lane, they then turned to jumpers which simply refused to fall. Certainly, the San Antonio defense will not ease up any by Wednesday, which means the Sonics are simply going to have to make jumpers at some point. Some semblance of a post game from Baker or James would also help loosen the Spurs a bit and allow the Sonics more room to operate offensively.

Really, at its most basic level, what the Sonics need on offense is an active and accurate Barry, but I simply don't see it happening.

If Wednesday indeed marks the last time the Sonics take the court this season, I will shed no tears for its outcome. The Sonics are basically right where I expected they'd be. What will be disappointing to take from this series, if it indeed as is over as it seems to be, was the Sonics' inability to keep the games close. From mid-January to April, they did not lose by more than 20 points in any game; yet that's happened twice in the three games of this series. For pride's sake at least, they must keep game four close and at least give themselves some opportunity to utilize the home crowd for victory. Sending the series back to San Antonio seems a lot to ask now, but would demonstrate anew the heart that this Seattle team has made evident most of this season. Keep it alive two more days . . . that's all I ask.