For most of this season and the playoffs, the Seattle SuperSonics had unshakable confidence in their own invincibility. Sure, the Sonics seemed to have the perfect blend of experience and youth, finesse and physique, but there also was that almost mythical goodness emanating from Coach Lenny Wilkens that seemed to make everything work no matter who was wearing the green, white and gold uniforms.
After all, this was the team that barely lost the NBA championship last year, then lost one center, Marvin Webster, to free agentry, and another, Tom LaGarde, to injury; stuck a second-year forward, Jack Sikma, in the pivot and replaced him with a forward, Lonnie Shelton, who had led the NBA in fouls during his two years in the league. And it still won the Pacific Division championship, then beat Los Angeles in five games to reach the Western Conference finals.
Thus, no less an expert than Rick Barry, who plays for Houston when not pontificating on television, said before the series with the Phoenix Suns, "The Sonics will win because they believe they will win."
But then something happened. After romping to home wins in Games 1 and 2 by scores of 108-93 and 103-97, the Sonics began to play as if they had Space Needles stuck in their throats. They had won that second game despite guards Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson shooting a combined 7 for 39. And their third big gun, Sikma, went 4 for 17. But these failings only wound up infusing the Sonics with more confidence.
"This was probably their best shot," said Seattle Forward John Johnson, speaking of the Suns' improved performance in Game 2. "If they play a better game in this series, I'll be pretty surprised."
But the Suns flared and played three better games, and by the time Game 6 rolled around in Phoenix—"Whoever thought there would be a Game 6," said the Sonics' veteran forward, Paul Silas—Seattle was one game, no, one shot, from being eliminated.
But somehow Seattle's faith in itself prevailed. The team's confidence had eroded badly—J.J. had long since eaten his words—and with good reason. In Games 2 through 5 the Sonics had shot miserably. Sikma, a 46% shooter in the regular season, was 14 for 56, mostly against a 6'7" rookie named Joel Kramer, who is better suited to playing forward. And what's worse, Seattle was slipping behind on the boards—to sweet, gentle Phoenix.
With the loss of rebounding advantage went Seattle's chance to control Phoenix' fast break. And when that break is run regularly by the blazing Walter Davis and his associates, the Suns are almost impossible to beat.
But in Game 6 last Sunday, Seattle scrapped as only it knows how. Moreover, the Sonics picked that game to shoot 54% from the field, seven points better than their regular-season average, and devastate the Suns on the boards 43-27 in a 106-105 win that sent the series back to Seattle.
For his part, Sikma lived up once more to his old nickname. The Banger moved the 203-pound Kramer all over the floor with relative impunity, and he also came out of his slump, hitting for 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Even so, the game, and perhaps Phoenix' best chance to reach the NBA finals for the second time in four years, went down to the final seconds and died at the hands of their best player. After rallying from a seven-point first-half deficit to a 97-91 lead with 7:45 left on the strength of Paul Westphal's 27 points and Davis' 24, the Suns got only two more field goals the rest of the way. It's not insignificant that the surge took place when Wilkens decided to shift the 6'8", 245-pound moving mountain, Shelton, onto Davis in place of the smaller, slower John Johnson, who had been trying vainly to stop Davis throughout the series.
First, Shelton got Seattle what would become the winning basket when he rifled an offensive rebound to Williams for a swish with 54 seconds left, to make it 106-105. But Phoenix would have three chances to win it.
With 41 seconds remaining, Davis, driving the lane, was bothered enough by Shelton to be whistled for traveling. It was Davis' second turnover in the final 67 seconds. Then with four seconds left, Phoenix set up a shot for Davis, but he missed from the left of the key, again with Shelton in his face. In the last second, Garfield Heard missed everything, and so after being so close, the Suns had blown their chance. Wasn't that just like Phoenix? And, also, just like Seattle?
It was in Phoenix back before Game 3 that the Suns had gained the upper hand. The sun was shining brightly, prompting many of the Sonics, confident and leading 2-0, to skip an optional practice in favor of their hotel pool the day before the game. But in a stuffy gym, Phoenix Coach John MacLeod was schooling the Suns on several new ways to attack. First off, Seattle's 16-rebound-per-game edge—8.5 on the offensive end—was intolerable. Not only did it negate Phoenix' bread-and-butter fast break, but it also gave the Sonics more opportunities to score than they deserved. Second, when Phoenix set up its offense with Alvan Adams in the high post, three Sonics would fill the lane and move en masse to double- or triple-team Westphal or Davis when either drove to the basket. "Ours is the first NBA team ever to have four players with 300 or more assists," said MacLeod. "There'll always be an open man. It shouldn't be so difficult for us to find him."
And so they did, but not before Adams went out after 11 minutes of Game 3 with a sprained left ankle. For some long moments, Phoenix' hopes seemed to hobble off the floor with Adams. Kramer, a third-round draft pick who hadn't played center since his freshman year at San Diego State, forced Sikma even deeper into his shooting slump—5 for 13 in Game 3. When Kramer chipped in with 11 points, six rebounds, two blocks and three assists himself, it appeared that Adams' injury might turn out to be one of those happy accidents.
"Alvan's game is finesse," said one of the Suns. "Joel will bang. He may bother Sikma more than Alvan could." And indeed, facing Kramer, the 6'11", 230-pound Sikma pressed harder.
In the third quarter, Phoenix took command of the boards for the first time in the series and came from one point down to seven ahead. As the third period became the fourth, Phoenix ran off a 16-2 surge, its fast break—led by Davis—in full gear. The dizzied Sonics never got closer than the 10 points by which they lost, 113-103.
Nonetheless, the victory still could have been a fluke. Surely with a slackjawed rookie center, who looks rather like a lost puppy when he trots onto the floor, Phoenix couldn't win again. But Kramer is smart and strong and quicker than he looks, and in Game 4 the Suns won more convincingly, 100-91. They dominated the boards at both ends, 49-40, and ran 13 fast breaks to Seattle's four. Davis was taking down rebounds, darting past defenders, and he scored 27 points.
John Johnson, who had to guard Davis, explained his strategy. "First I try to front him without the ball," he said. "Then I try to press him into either making the bad pass or the shot. Then I pray to God that he misses it."
Meanwhile, Sikma's slump was past the critical stage—2 for 13. In the first four games, he was 19 for 55 and had exactly three assists. Said Heard, who took turns with Truck Robinson and Davis in helping Kramer out, "They're playing right into our hands by going to Jack."
Phoenix' 99-93 Game 5 win in the Kingdome served notice that the Suns could no longer be taken lightly. Phoenix hadn't won in Seattle in six tries, dating back to March 1977. Wilkens had locked the doors on the Sonics' practice in a vain attempt to restore the confidence that was so badly eroding.
Seattle had every chance to keep the home-court advantage by winning Game 5, especially when Davis picked up three fouls in the first 4½ minutes and watched the rest of the half from the bench. Kramer soon joined him, and Seattle had the opportunity to set its own tempo—s-l-o-w—for the first time since Game 2. The Sonics moved ahead by as much as nine, but Alvin Scott (subbing for Davis) and Bayard Forrest (in for Kramer), along with Robinson, Heard, Westphal, Don Buse and Mike Bratz, showed they could bang away at Seattle's own game, and the Suns were trailing by only 46-41 at halftime.
Seattle had a 66-59 lead with 1:04 left in the third period when MacLeod signaled for an all-out press. After Scott had made a three-point play, Bratz stole an inbounds pass and put in two free throws. Forrest stole a pass from John Johnson and hit Westphal for a short jumper. Thirty-four seconds had passed and the score was tied.
From there it was all high-pressure basketball. Davis worked hard for 15 of his 17 points in the second half; Westphal scored 18 of his 27; Bratz eight of his 13. "We never deviated from our system," said MacLeod. "That was the key. We did just what we'd done all year."
But Seattle panicked. When Williams fouled out after scoring only 10 points, the Sonics went to Dennis Johnson (24) and poor Sikma. Jack did make three baskets (in 13 shots) after taking the collar in the first three quarters, but as in Game 2, the Sonics fouled heavily down the stretch, presumably hoping the Suns would miss. The difference this time was that Phoenix hit 15 straight in the final 6:48 to take the advantage back to Arizona on Sunday.
Seattle's locker room resembled nothing if not a sinking ship. All the Sonics were angry, at each other, at themselves; at their lockers, at their clothes. "This is hard to believe," said John Johnson. "This afternoon I said that the pressure was on them because they had to win one up here to take it. Well they took it and there was nothing we could do about it. If a team beats you three straight and you don't respect them, then you're a damn fool."
On Sunday the Sonics manned the pumps at the last possible instant and were afloat again.
"I wouldn't call what happened to us 'overconfidence,' " said Wilkens. "But we were second-guessing ourselves. Even the players. You know, we didn't win 52 games by some fluke."
Nor would it be a fluke if they won Game 7 in the Kingdome this week and headed into the finals for the second straight year. After all, they always believed they would.