Fred Brown had barely touched his salad, had picked at his broccoli all evening, and he kept halfheartedly pushing a dead duck around his plate as if he had known its family personally. Every time Brown speared a morsel with his fork he looked it over unenthusiastically, as if he thought somebody might be trying to slip him yesterday's brisket of monkey. Finally he shoved his plate away. "We're definitely not as hungry this year," he said, referring not to the duck, but to the Seattle SuperSonics, of whom he is captain. "Last year we were building a mountain, and when you're working that hard you can't help but be hungry. This season has been different."
With the start of the NBA playoffs less than three weeks away, the question most often asked around the league these days is whether Seattle, the defending champion, will be doing any serious mountain climbing this year. Or, to put it another way, are the Sonics past their peak, so to speak?
What makes all this so fascinating is that Seattle is trying to become the first NBA team to successfully defend its title in the past 11 years. Nobody has won back-to-back championships since the Boston Celtics—who else?—did it in 1968 and '69. "We all know we want to repeat," says Guard Dennis Johnson, "and everybody in Seattle knows we want to repeat. Now we've got to quit talking about it and make it happen."
There have been times this season when it appeared that the Sonics were off somewhere looking for their lost intensity, and for a few fairly thrilling moments in late February it was anybody's guess which players had contacted their answering services and left wake-up calls for the playoffs. After sleepwalking through four losses in five games during one particularly gruesome stretch two weeks ago, the champs looked like chumps and seemed about to yawn so hard through the rest of the regular season that they would break their game faces.
Since then, however, Seattle has won four of six games, including two out of four last week on the road, where the Sonics have put together a fairly impressive 22-16 record this season. Even more encouraging should have been the fact that Seattle was seven wins ahead of last season's regular-season pace, with seven of the last eight games to be played at home in the Kingdome. Yet, in spite of all these positive vibrations, joy in Sonicland last week was not exactly what one would describe as unconfined. That's probably because no one was sure if this year's playoffs would be a boom or a bust, especially considering that the opposition, notably Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, appears to be much stronger than it was last season.
If anything has surprised and troubled the Sonics more than their periodic lapses of concentration, it has been the lack of fear they've inspired in teams that are supposed to tremble at the mere thought of playing the defending world champions. But noooooo. Seattle has a 7-7 record against such non-juggernauts as Chicago, New Jersey, San Diego and the late, great, lately not-so-great, Washington Bullets—teams with a combined won-loss record of 119-161 this season. "These other teams want us bad," says Brown, in a familiar lament of champions. "It bothers me to see them thinking that we've gotten so cocky they can beat us." Coach Lenny Wilkens, too, has been concerned by the Sonics' inability to beat weaker teams consistently. "We have to let those teams know they can't play with us," he says.
Los Angeles Forward Jim Chones got downright nasty about it recently and implied that Seattle is over the hill. "I think everybody is hung up on what the Sonics did last year," Chones said. "I don't think they are as good a team as they were." Then, just to make sure every one got the picture, Chones contributed 16 points as the Lakers devastatingly shot down the sub-Sonic Seattleites 131-108.
Being pounded so ruthlessly by its main challengers was bad enough from Seattle's point of view, but adding to the worries engendered by the loss was the fact that the Sonics gave such a pallid, unemotional performance in so critical a game. Emotion may seem like an odd word to use in any discussion of the NBA regular season, which can turn even the most animated player into a zombie. Standard procedure, as almost any San Antonio Spur can tell you, is to maintain the absolute minimum level of intensity throughout the interminable pre-playoff action without actually having Hot Rod Hundley declare you legally dead. When Seattle tried to light some emotional flares for its showdown in Los Angeles, the Sonics discovered they had neglected to keep their powder dry. "The L.A. game was a good slap in the face," says Center Jack Sikma. "We realized we were fooling ourselves, figuring we could dance right into the division title." Dance, indeed. The Lakers and Sonics have been cheek-to-cheek for months; at the end of last week L.A. had a half-game lead in the Pacific Division.
Still, Sikma, who has blossomed into the fifth-best rebounder in the league—11.1 a game—and one of the most complete big men in the NBA, concedes that it is much more difficult to psych himself up for defending the Sonics' title than it was to get up for winning it in the first place. "I know I'm playing with a degree less emotion than last year," he says. "But it's not like you can throw a switch and just turn it on."
"In this league, it's very, very hard to flip switches on and off," Brown says. "I think guys forget what made them win, what got them on top. It's very easy to forget those things after you've won a world championship."
What got Seattle on top last year was its defense, which was at once the stingiest and the most physical in the league. Though the Sonics' drop has only been from first to third in the team-defense statistics, there have been prolonged and at times costly lapses this season. Three weeks ago in Kansas City, Seattle blew an eight-point lead with less than three minutes remaining and wound up losing to the Kings 107-105. "I don't think we're as aggressive this year," says Lonnie Shelton, Seattle's 6'8", 245-pound power forward. "Last year we beat people up all the time, but this season we don't always go into a game thinking we're going to be the most physical team out there."
Perhaps the best gauge of how important defense can be to the Sonics' game occurred last week in a 127-111 loss at Phoenix. After breaking to a 34-24 advantage in a near-flawless first quarter, Seattle relaxed defensively against the Suns' sharpshooters and found themselves trailing 63-59 at the half. Seattle then scored the first 11 points of the second half before Shelton picked up his third and fourth fouls in the space of a minute and, as has often been the case, was forced to the bench. Shelton, who has averaged only 30 minutes a game, scored just four of his 18 points in the second half. More important, without his defense and imposing presence on the boards, Seattle's running game sputtered to a standstill, generating no fast-break baskets during the entire half.
Wilkens, for one, feels the Sonics' defense may have been a casualty of the championship. "For two straight years we played defense like nobody ever has," he says, "and I'm not talking about slowing the ball up to keep the score down. But when you have the kind of success we've had, I wonder if you're willing to work hard enough to play that way."
On paper, at least, it seems that whatever shortcomings the Sonics may have developed on defense have been offset by the team's increased offensive production. In 1978-79 there were only three teams in the NBA that scored fewer points than the Sonics, but this season Seattle ranks 11th in the league. However, that apparent improvement may have contributed to the Sonics' recent difficulties.
Both Dennis Johnson (19.1 points a-game) and Gus (Skindome) Williams (22.4) are having the best offensive seasons of their careers, and with Brown, the ageless sideman in this estimable trio, they give Seattle an average output from the backcourt of 53 points. Johnson may now be the most versatile guard to play in the NBA since Jerry West; he provides not only scoring but also defense and rebounding. Williams and Brown are both offensive virtuosos—Williams scored all 16 of Seattle's points during one stretch of a game with Denver this season—and each of the threesome seems confident that any shot he takes is a good one, if for no other reason than that he is taking it. Occasionally this cockiness produces disastrous results, as in a 101-98 overtime loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago in which the Seattle guards shot 15 of 51. In last week's defeat by Phoenix, Williams and Johnson went 13 for 39.
"When there's not much time left on the shot clock," says Philadelphia Back-courtman Lionel Hollins, "their guards tend to take it upon themselves to do something, and usually it's from the outside." Dennis Johnson, in particular, has often been guilty of galloping overconfidence. "Sometimes he gets so psyched up he wants to tear the other team apart all by himself," says Wilkens.
Wilkens felt that urge at times during his luminous 15-year playing career. Certainly he never felt it more strongly than when his Hawks were about to play the defending world-champion Boston Celtics. "I couldn't wait, literally couldn't wait to get out there on the same floor with them," Wilkens recalls. The Celtics not only had eight good players when no other team had more than four, says Wilkens, but they also established their incredible reign of 10 championships in 12 years at a time when there were only eight to 10 teams in the NBA and the schedule permitted more leisurely travel. Today the league has more teams, more talent, better scouting and an arduous schedule that makes winning a championship less a beauty contest than a test of survival. "Some teams will be good, some will contend more than once," says Wilkens, "but I don't believe we're ever going to see a dynasty again."
John Johnson, the Sonics' lynx-eyed forward, was less concerned with talk of dynasties last week than he was about the breakfast of champions—in this case, cornflakes, bananas and cream—that he had just sent back to the kitchen because the cream was warm. "We're not a damn machine," said Johnson. "We can't play well every night. When you win a championship, people put you on a pedestal. They expect you to maintain that same kind of efficiency year round."
A few days earlier in a game against Utah in Salt Lake City, a heckler got on Johnson about his shooting as Johnson checked into the game. "See you a few bricks later," the loudmouth told Johnson. J.J. looked at the man, held up his unadorned hand and said, "I've got this [championship] ring I want to show you after the game."
"That was last year," the heckler called back.
Johnson gave the fan one more long, hard look, and, as he stood up to walk out on the floor, muttered something. The man was laughing too loudly to hear Johnson say, "We'll see about that, we'll just see."