November 2, 2001

A sweet opener at the Key

Four days into the season, the Sonics find themselves 1-1, but they've already generated a great deal of optimism in their fans, their opponents, and (hopefully) themselves. Let me tell you something about 20-win teams who finish 26th in the league (read the previous column if you don't know why I reference 26th). They don't play well but come up just short when entering one of the noisiest arenas in the NBA against a team that, admittedly without its best player, remains very strong. And they especially don't take out the defending Midwest Division champs in their home opener.

It's official. The Sonics are a legitimate contender, barring injury, for a playoff spot. And teams like Phoenix, Houston, Utah, and the Clippers had better take notice.

Between the loss at Sacramento and the win against San Antonio, almost everyone on the roster has displayed the potential or talent they possess.

Gary Payton dominated the fourth quarter against the Spurs, proving why he's integral to any Sonic hopes of success this year. Brent Barry has been arguably the best Sonic through two games, thus far averaging 20 points, a team-high 8 boards per game, and 6 assists per. He's also kept the turnovers down to a healthy 3 in total thus far. Desmond Mason shined last night, scoring 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting. Perhaps most impressive, the 27% three-point shooter of a year ago drilled a pair of clutch triples down the stretch. Oh, yeah, there was also that nasty facial on David Robinson that went for a three-point play and brought down the house. Earl Watson has been steady thus far, all the Sonics ask for in a backup point, and he had a +6 plus/minus in last night's game, according to one avid reader watching at home.

Vin Baker has had one game where he was solid offensively and decent defensively, and another where he reversed the adjectives. His 20 points against Sacramento were eye-opening, but he might have even played better last night, grabbing 8 boards and stifling Tim Duncan in the post (though Duncan scored a team-high 24 points, he shot just 6 of 18 from the field). As well, he was aggressive on the offensive glass -- one memorable sequence where he grabbed a rebound away from Duncan and then laid the ball up and in won't soon be forgotten. Rashard Lewis had the misfortune to receive an errant Scot Pollard elbow in the neck opening night, causing him to miss the vast majority of the second hall. Last night, the stroke was down for Lewis, who hit four triples -- all in the second half, I do believe -- en route to 22 points. He's averaging 2 rebounds every 9 minutes, which about works out to a cool 11 per 48. Off the bench, Vladimir Radmanovic has been strong in each game, providing energy and scoring punch and knocking down the triple. He's made some rookie mistakes, but Radmanovic should contribute this season. Art Long has been the surprise 10th man in Nate McMillan's rotation. He's provided hustle, energy, and rebounding as well as giving the team a tall, athletic player to use in full-court pressing situations. Neither Olumide Oyedeji nor Antonio Harvey has seen the light of day thus far.

Calvin Booth proved those who dismissed his shooting ability wrong with a strong third quarter opening night, scoring 8 points in the stanza on 3 of 4 shooting. However, his sprained ankle has left him hard pressed to contribute defensively. Jerome James was the talk of opening night, after a fantastic 11-point performance. James is not in shape yet, leaving him gasping for breath after seemingly short runs. Once he gets up to speed, look out. What a talent he is.

Coach McMillan deserves a great deal of credit for the win over San Antonio. McMillan flat-out out-coached Gregg Popovich, though admittedly much of that may be due to the fact that McMillan attached more significance to the game (and thus played his starters heavier minutes) than did Popovich. Regardless, McMillan's use down the stretch of a small lineup of Payton, Barry, Mason, Lewis, and Baker meant that Popovich had to go small as well, playing Antonio Daniels, Terry Porter, Steve Smith, Malik Rose, and Duncan. After the game, Popovich said he didn't think Robinson could handle defending Lewis. On the other hand, however, could Lewis guard Robinson? I doubt it. If both teams stick with normal lineups, we're talking about switching Booth for Mason on the Sonic end and Robinson for Rose on the Spur end. That's a clear advantage to the Spurs, in my humble opinion, so I applaud Nate for not bowing to the conventional wisdom that one has to play nothing but big men against the Spurs.

Games in Review:

- Tuesday, October 30 - at Sacramento 101, Sonics 95
Without Chris Webber, the Kings got big offensive nights from each of their Yugoslavian players. Vlade Divac went off to the tune of 27 points and 8 boards, and Peja Stojakovic had 25 and 9. The Sonics went cold in the middle of the fourth quarter, and didn't have quite enough to catch up at the end. Payton struggled, shooting just 5 of 18, though he did hand out 13 assists.

- Thursday, November 1 - at Sonics 114, San Antonio 108
The Spurs got off to a real quick start, leaving those of us in Section 222 (home of the real fans) wondering if it wouldn't be an extremely long home opener. In the second quarter, the Sonics went ahead for good by going small. They extended the lead in the third, getting it briefly into double digits. In the fourth, the teams more or less traded baskets, with the lead between 6 and 10. In the final minutes, Payton took over the game, and his two turnaround jumpers in the final minute and a half sealed the deal. In addition to Duncan with 24, Daniels had 21, and Robinson 17 in three quarters.

As always, I'm obligated to take you through things from the fan's point of view. You may have heard that the new Howard Schultz regime has made several additions to the 'experience' of Sonic basketball. Let me discuss those of them that I noticed:

- Prior to the game, fans can sit courtside to watch players shootaround between an hour and a half and (I think) a half hour before the game. Actually, this was in place last year, but bear with me. This is rather helpful to me in terms of getting pictures for, but otherwise, I think this one's mostly for the kids.

- Just before the teams come out for layup drills, fans are selected to shoot a three pointer for a $100 gift certificate to the Team Store. Pretty decent, but did they select the worst players they could find? Nothing but airballs, even from Times reporter Jayda Evans -- and her father's a D1 basketball coach.

- There's a new Green & Gold Rewards program. The way I understand it, you get points every time you swipe your card at a (video-game-esque) machine and earn various things. I got a free coke out of it, so I was pleased, but these machines continually play the song used at the beginning of telecasts, and I may get so tired of that by January that I punch in a machine. And we don't want that, now do we?

- Old players are out in full force. By the way, who the heck are Dean Tolson and Talvin Skinner? Jack Sikma, Johnny Johnson, and Slick Watts (the latter two participated in a game of 'twoball' at halftime) are cool, but I can live without hearing about Russ Schoene and James Donaldson. And where's Freddy Brown? Last I checked, his jersey was in the rafters too, but I haven't seen him at any Sonic event.

- Concessions are 25% off between 5:30 and 6:30. I rarely eat at games other than the free hot dog you get with family tickets (not giving away how to get those so that my family can), but last night due to time demands I was forced to, and got a personal pizza for a somewhat more reasonable price.

Closing comments:

- E-mail me at with any questions or comments on the Sonic Report

- Visit the BskBALL message board via the links above. You can now follow the progress of a friendly competition between myself and Raptor writer Sniper over who correctly predicts Sonics games against the spread.