It's All Up For Grabs

The inexperienced and unheralded Nuggets snuffed the mighty Sonics and helped turn the NBA playoffs into a free-for-all
May 15, 1994

With all the talk of houses last week, it was hard to tell whether the Denver Nuggets and the Seattle SuperSonics were involved in an NBA Western Conference opening-round playoff series or a Realtors' convention. There was the House of Mutombo, which is not the name of a Denver big-and-tall men's store, although it ought to be; it's actually McNichols Sports Arena, where 7'2" Nugget center Dikembe Mutombo, the league's leading shot blocker, swats 'em away. Then there was the "Not in our house" warning that the Sonics, who won 37 of their 41 regular-season home games, and their fans issue to any opponent who dares enter the Seattle Center Coliseum with hopes of a victory.

But last Saturday, Mutombo rented space under the basket in the Sonics' house and blocked eight shots, and the rest of the No. 8-seeded Nuggets barged in, raided the refrigerator, put their feet up on the coffee table and grabbed the remote control. They knocked the top-seeded Sonics out of the playoffs with a 98-94 overtime win in Game 5 of the best-of-five series, a result that made it clear that this postseason is now an open house. Step right in and look around, you Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks (who staved off another No. 8-shocks-No. 1 upset by beating the scrappy Miami Heat 102-91 in their Game 5 on Sunday). Don't be shy, you Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets. The NBA title is up for grabs, and with the Sonics, who had the NBA's best regular-season record (63-19), out of the bidding, there has never been a better time to buy.

Denver, which was a mere 42-40, became the first No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed since 1984, when the NBA adopted its current playoff format. And in the stunned silence of the Seattle locker room after Game 5, if you listened closely you could almost hear Phoenix forward Charles Barkley laughing in the distance. Barkley and the Suns watched the Sonics' demise on television in Houston, where the next day they would open their Western Conference semifinal with a 91-87 win over the Rockets, and raucously rooted the Nuggets on. "Nate McMillan and Shawn Kemp [of the Sonics]," Barkley chortled. "We don't have to worry about them now, do we?"

Well, no, but someone had better start worrying about the Nuggets, who advanced to a second-round meeting with the Jazz, first-round winners over the San Antonio Spurs. Seattle obviously didn't concern itself enough with Denver, especially after winning the first two games of the series at home by an average of 17 points. "The first game [a 106-82 Sonic victory] was a throwaway," said coach Dan Issel. "It might have worked to our advantage because Seattle might have thought it was going to be a short series." But Denver recovered with two wins at McNichols before shocking the Sonics in Game 5, aided by 23 points from Robert Pack, its dynamic backup point guard.

"No bookie, no bettor, no armchair quarterback, no 76-year-old grandmother sipping Metamucil in a nursing home could have thought this would happen," said forward Brian Williams, who contributed 17 points and 19 rebounds in the decisive win and distinguished himself throughout the series as the most quotable Nugget. After the Game 1 loss in which he, Mutombo and forward LaPhonso Ellis combined for only 14 rebounds, Williams declared, "I'm going to put some cayenne pepper in Dikembe's and LaPhonso's pregame meals. I'm going to get them mad and hot."

Williams also provided a few inspirational words before the fifth game, when he reminded his teammates of Villanova's upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game. "I should have popped him in the mouth for that," said teammate Reggie Williams, who played for those Hoyas.

Brian Williams would no doubt have preferred that to a pop in the mouth from mountainous Georgetown coach John Thompson, who made an appearance at Game 5 to support ex-Hoyas Mutombo and Reggie Williams. Thompson's presence was appropriate, because there is a collegiate feel to the Nuggets—the youngest team in the NBA—as well as to these playoffs. With the lower seeds (Denver, Indiana and Utah) winning three of the eight first-round series, this could pass for the NCAA tournament. Maybe that's why when Issel and Denver athletic director, uh, general manager Bernie Bickerstaff talk about their players, they often sound as if they're referring to a bunch of guys taking freshman English.

"I don't think our kids knew they were supposed to be nervous," Issel said after Game 5. Or maybe they knew that on life's list of things to worry about, basketball games rank well below clinical depression, Tourette's syndrome and the lesser but equally career-threatening problem of being held in low esteem by NBA executives. Members of the Nuggets have confronted all of those obstacles. Brian Williams went to Denver last August in a trade after two years with the Orlando Magic. There, during his second season, he had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Williams was suffering from clinical depression, which is now being treated with medication and counseling. Against Seattle, "things were very dark at one point, very dark," Williams said. "After we got behind 2-0 in the series, I was just thinking that if I can come back from what I came back from, we can come back from this."

Williams found inspiration in guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was the Nuggets' leading scorer in the regular season despite suffering from Tourette's syndrome. Tourette's causes its sufferers to make involuntary sounds, and causes tics and other involuntary movements (Abdul-Rauf's condition is being controlled with medication). Abdul-Rauf wasn't much of a factor against the Sonic defensive traps, averaging only nine points a game, but Pack picked up the slack. "When Robert comes into a game, something is going to happen," says Issel. "Sometimes it's something wonderful, sometimes it's something not so wonderful, sometimes it's something just, well, strange."

Wonderful: With the score tied at 82 with about nine seconds left in regulation in Game 4, Pack stole the ball from Sonic point guard Gary Payton.

Not so wonderful: With no one between him and the basket, Pack then lost control of the ball.

Just, well, strange: After recovering the ball with enough time to drive to the basket and win the game, Pack decided to pull up for a 10-foot jump shot that somehow missed everything. The Nuggets won anyway, 94-85 in overtime.

But in Game 5 Pack was mostly wonderful. After injuring his hip when he was upended late in the third quarter, he returned in the fourth to score 10 of his 23 points and direct a Denver offense that wasn't always smooth—the Nuggets had six 24-second violations in the last eight minutes of the game—but was effective enough when it had to be. "The most impressive thing about Robert is his resiliency," says Bickerstaff. "He never lets a mistake on the last play keep him from doing something good on the next one."

That's a quality that NBA front-office people failed to detect in 1991, when Pack finished his career at USC, where he had averaged 13.4 points. Not only was he un-drafted, no team even saw enough promise in him to invite him to camp as a free agent. Trojan coach George Raveling finally wangled Pack a shot with the Portland Trail Blazers, "although I think they ignored him the first few times he called," Pack says. Pack surprised almost everyone by making the Blazers, but they traded him to Denver at the start of his second season. He scored 10.5 points a game for the Nuggets last season—and then surprised everyone again by having the temerity to hold out at the beginning of this season, looking for a raise of $1.25 million, to $1.5 million. He finally signed a three-year, $3 million contract. "I'm definitely enjoying getting a chance to show all those people who didn't even think I was worth inviting to camp that they made a mistake," he said last week.

Bickerstaff has made few mistakes in his shrewd rebuilding of a Nugget team that won only 24 games two years ago. He acquired Mutombo, Ellis, guard Bryant Stith and forward Rodney Rogers in the last three drafts; he signed Reggie Williams—at 30, Denver's oldest player—after he was released by San Antonio; and he traded for Pack and Brian Williams.

Another of his astute moves was giving Issel a call two years ago and asking him to replace Paul Westhead as the Nuggets' coach. After finishing his 15-year Hall of Fame playing career with Denver in 1985, Issel bought a farm in Kentucky and planned a horse-breeding career. But when the bottom fell out of the breeding business, he sold the land and took a job as a Nugget broadcaster in 1988. That's what he was doing when Bickerstaff talked him into accepting his first coaching job. "We've come a long way, and to be honest, we just wanted to get some playoff experience this year," Issel said Saturday. "Getting this much is a bonus."

For the Sonics it was a playoff experience they won't soon forget, no matter how hard they try. The weaknesses that skeptics had detected in Seattle were all exposed by the Nuggets. There was the suspicion that the Sonics were a high-strung team that could unravel under the pressure of being a playoff favorite, which apparently is just what happened. Payton and guard Ricky Pierce had an altercation at halftime of Game 2 and reportedly had to be separated by teammates. In Game 5 the Sonics became so flustered down the stretch that coach George Karl couldn't get any of his players' attention to call a timeout. "I can't deny the butterflies felt like rocks," a crestfallen Karl said.

Then there was the belief that Seattle was vulnerable to any team that could handle its defensive pressure and turn the game into a half-court battle. That's exactly what the Nuggets did in Game 5, when they turned the ball over only 11 times. That kept the Sonics from running and getting easy baskets, and it forced them to contend with the Denver big men, most notably Mutombo, Brian Williams and Ellis, who scored 19 points—including the Nuggets' last two field goals in regulation and the three-point play in overtime that put them ahead to stay.

Finally, there was the criticism that Seattle lacked a go-to guy, someone it could rely on down the stretch. In Game 5 that guy wasn't Payton, who was hampered by a foot injury suffered in the first quarter, and it wasn't All-Star forward Kemp, who ventured outside when Mutombo shut him down near the basket and scored only six of his 19 points after the first half. If the Sonics had a superstar, he would have stepped forward on Saturday. No one did.

That's why the Nuggets stepped forward into the bold new world of the second round, where they haven't been since 1988. With the intimidating presence of Mutombo and its young, active forwards, Denver seems well equipped to battle Utah power forward Karl Malone inside, but against Jazz point guard John Stockton, the Nuggets will need a bigger contribution from Abdul-Rauf than they received against Seattle. Nevertheless, they have the brashness of youth. "I know they have their house, just like the Sonics," Mutombo said of the Jazz. "I don't like to be rude, but these are the playoffs. Nobody invites you into their house. You just have to go in and get comfortable."

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHIn Game 5 Reggie Williams of Denver, which had 12 blocks, rendered Payton subsonic. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTurning the tables on the trapping Sonics, Mutombo and Reggie Williams doubled Detlef Schrempf. TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHIn the clutch Ellis (left) was unstoppable, while supersub Pack stepped in to send Seattle packing. TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThe Sonics looked the part of the beaten favorites, but after the upset, Mutombo had himself a ball.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)