It has become a rite of spring in Seattle to take the
psychological temperature of the SuperSonics, a team that has
developed what can only be called a playoff deficit disorder.
Other cities may have armchair quarterbacks; Seattle has
armchair therapists. The first-round upset losses the Sonics
have suffered the last two seasons have left such emotional
scars that one of the local newspapers, the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, ran a story last Friday in which a
psychologist tried to explain how the players could visualize
success and reach a postseason comfort zone, or, in layman's
terms, how they could keep from choking. The headline called the
playoffs the Sonics' "chance to prove they're not the NBA's
Norman." That was a reference to golfer Greg Norman, who blew
the Masters three weeks ago, but it could just as easily have
referred to Alfred Hitchcock's fictional Norman Bates. There is
no kind way to say it: In the playoffs the Sonics are psychos.
That became evident again on Sunday when Seattle, owner of a
64-18 regular-season record and top seed in the Western
Conference, dropped a 90-81 decision at home to the No. 8-seeded
Sacramento Kings. That outcome tied the teams' best-of-five
first-round series at 1-1 and served as a reminder that for the
Sonics, playoff games are the equivalent of group-therapy
sessions. They exhibited some of the same symptoms in Game 2
that they thought they had worked through--disorientation and
anxiety, particularly in the fourth quarter, and occasional
paranoid episodes, especially where the media were concerned.
"How do we keep this from becoming like the last two years?"
said forward Sam Perkins after the defeat. "We can start by not
reading the papers." It wasn't that the loss necessarily doomed
Seattle to another early exit (even though Games 3 and 4 were to
be played Tuesday and Thursday in Sacramento, where the Kings
were 26-15 in the regular season); it was the knowledge that
they had relinquished the home court advantage to lowly
Sacramento, at 39-43 the only sub-.500 team in the playoffs and
loser of all four regular-season games against Seattle, which
left the Sonics psychobabbling to themselves.
"We just need to stay together," said Seattle coach George Karl
after Game 2. "Anytime you play playoff basketball, the pressure
can break you apart. The emphasis for us doesn't need to be as
much on X's and O's as on maintaining our self-esteem,
continuing to believe in ourselves and each other." Karl didn't
need to be reminded that the Sonics failed in precisely that
area the past two postseasons, when they lost to lower-seeded
teams, first to the Denver Nuggets and then to the Los Angeles
Lakers. Locker room altercations and bickering over playing time
caused Seattle to crumble from within in those defeats. Says
guard Hersey Hawkins, "When I came over here [in a preseason
trade], the first thing George said to me was, 'It's not as big
a circus over here as you've heard.'"
The Sonics spent the regular season telling everyone else the
same thing, insisting that they were a more stable outfit than
the high-strung one that had imploded the past two seasons. The
calming influence of Hawkins was supposed to have helped, and
Seattle's two All-Stars, forward Shawn Kemp and point guard Gary
Payton, declared themselves more mature and capable of leading
the team. "Because of the team chemistry, I'm more at peace, not
nervous," Karl said before Game 1. "That doesn't happen to
George Karl very often. George Karl is usually wired."
Karl was positively serene after the Sonics disposed of the
Kings 97-85 in Game 1, despite playing without Kemp, who was
serving a one-game suspension for fighting with Denver's Tom
Hammonds in the final game of the regular season. Seattle's
trademark withering defense, which helped harass Sacramento's
All-Star guard Mitch Richmond into 4-of-13 shooting, and a
brilliant all-around game from Payton (29 points, nine assists
and four steals) more than compensated for Kemp's absence. But
the Sonics are like the Seattle weather--no matter how sunny
things appear, there's a feeling that rain is never far away.
It arrived in Game 2 when the Sonics played a fourth quarter
that must have sent their fans in search of their own shrinks.
The Kings outscored Seattle 25-14 in the period, with Richmond
getting 11 of his 37 points in that span. Kemp turned the ball
over four times--he had nine turnovers overall--and missed a
dunk. And as if the karma surrounding the Sonics wasn't bad
enough, smiling down on the proceedings was recently retired
Princeton coach Pete Carril, architect of a first-round upset of
UCLA in the NCAA tournament in March and of several near upsets
in tournaments past. Carril was on hand as a guest of Kings vice
president Geoff Petrie, who played for Carril at Princeton.
But Carril had far less to do with the outcome than did Richmond
and Sacramento big men Brian Grant, Billy Owens, Olden Polynice
and Michael Smith, who gave the Kings a 45-28 rebounding
advantage. "The most aggressive team is the team that wins,"
Kemp said. "It doesn't matter how talented you are. I'm not
saying who was aggressive on this team and who wasn't. It's not
about deciding who's to blame. This team doesn't do that anymore."
That in itself represented progress, but the Sonics still gave
the impression that even if they escape the first round, they
may not yet be emotionally stable enough to reach the NBA
Finals. "It kind of showed in their faces that they were a
little tight," Smith said after Game 2. "We thought if we could
pressure them a little, they might start playing mind games with
themselves. After the last two years they're probably saying, 'I
hope this isn't going to be a three-peat.'"
If so, the Sonics were saying it to themselves. Publicly they
did their best to sound confident. "I still like this team's
chances," Karl said. That was reassuring, but by the time this
postseason is over, there may be six words the Sonics and their
fans will hear even more: The doctor will see you now.