The start of Game 1, the first playoff game of his career, was
10 minutes away, and Vin Baker was already exhausted. This was
last Friday night at KeyArena, the Seattle haven for gourmet
beer and go-go basketball. His SuperSonics teammates were
hanging out in front of their bench, sipping water, checking out
the crowd and the dancers and the opposition, coolly focusing
their thoughts and energies, winding down the way veterans do
before a big game. George Karl, the Seattle coach, the grand
master of casual, was in a back room, slipping out of his sweat
suit and into his game suit. He was about to coach his 85th
playoff game. His starters--most of them, anyway--knew all about
springtime basketball. Hersey Hawkins was about to play in his
59th postseason game, Gary Payton in number 75, Detlef Schrempf
in number 87 and Jerome Kersey in number 101. Then there was
Baker--five years in the NBA, four All-Star Games but no money
games. He was sitting on a cushioned folding chair, sucking air
through his mouth, which was dry, staring blankly at the blank
scoreboard above him. He was spent by his own nervous energy,
waiting for a new chapter in his life to begin.
He had been acting wacky for a while. Earlier Baker had laid out
his 6'10" body on top of the NBA PLAYOFFS logo painted on the
court as if to embrace it, celebrating his arrival in the
postseason. When a team discussion turned to the Sonics'
first-round opponents, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Baker
prefaced his remarks by saying, "Now we've all been here
before...." Sam Perkins, preparing for his 119th playoff game,
turned a cocked head toward his teammate and said, "Say what?"
The whole team was amused. They all knew that after each of
Baker's first four years in the league, atoning for no sins but
temporarily stuck in a basketball purgatory called Milwaukee, he
had returned to his family home in Old Saybrook, Conn., feeling
too sullen even to watch the first-round games on TV.
Now he was about to play in one. The arena went dark and the
starters were announced, and suddenly Baker found himself
revitalized. His first quarter unfolded as if in a dream.
Eighteen seconds into the game, Baker tossed in a 16-footer, and
Seattle led 2-0. A little later he hit a 13-footer. Then a dunk.
Then another. A layup. Then a 19-footer. A 21-footer was the
topper. By the end of the first quarter, Baker had scored 14
points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot, and the Sonics
led the Timberwolves 34-21. The rest of the game--which Seattle
won 108-83--was played out of respect for custom. In truth, the
game was over after those first 12 minutes. Some people figured
the best-of-five series was, too. After all, the most important
question, it seemed, had been answered: Yes, Vin Baker can play
postseason basketball. He finished Game 1 with 25 points and 12
rebounds, 5.8 points and four boards above his season average.
He got postseason game.
That's what his teammates were saying afterward. "If Vin plays
this way, we're going to win games easily," Payton said. In the
stands Baker's mother, Jean, was shrieking with delight. His
father, James, a preacher and auto mechanic, was under doctor's
orders not to travel because of chest pains, so he was back in
Old Saybrook, watching the game on TV and celebrating his son's
victory alone with potato chips and soda.
May 3, 1998
Vin Baker was also restrained. He knew one game proved nothing.
Afterward Flip Saunders, the Minnesota coach, said, "With the
Sonics, you pick your poison. If you defend the three-pointer,
you give up Baker." Baker knew the truth in that. "I don't want
to think everything is going to go like this, because it's not,"
he said late Friday night.
Sunday night at KeyArena, the Timberwolves pulled a fast one:
They put two guys on Baker. Every time he got the ball, he was
swarmed by Tom Hammonds and Stephon Marbury or Kevin Garnett and
a very angry Stephon Marbury, who felt, he said, that his team
had played so poorly in Game 1 that his "manhood got tested."
For Baker, Game 2 was a blur of changing, charging faces,
flailing arms and rapid-fire passes back out to the wing. Baker
played 39 minutes--on Friday night he had played only 28--but
attempted just six shots, finishing with eight points and nine
Saunders had called it. In the first game the Sonics were 5 for
21 from treyland. In the second they were 8 for 25, but Saunders
had chosen his poison well. The Timberwolves won 98-93. Early on
Monday morning, the teams flew to Minneapolis, knowing their
season had at least two more games in it, one on Tuesday, one on
Thursday, both at the Target Center. The "if necessary" Game 5
would be played on Saturday at KeyArena.
Late in the second game Baker found himself back on a cushioned
seat on the Seattle bench. This time his mouth was shut and his
eyes were glued to the floor in front of him. He was suffering,
and you could only sympathize with him because he is such an
exceedingly nice man. In the stands Jean Baker was slumped in
her chair, her hair sagging a bit from the humidity generated by
17,000 disappointed people. Back in Old Saybrook, James Baker
sat alone in front of the TV, his potato chips and sodas laid
out before him, ready for the modest victory party that never
Late Sunday night everybody had a theory about Vin Baker's
second postseason game. Payton felt that Baker had not been
aggressive enough. Karl thought he had been too selfless,
passing out of the double teams rather than trying to muscle his
way to the hoop. Baker himself offered no novel theories, and he
made no excuses. He said he'd have to look at the tapes of Game
2 and make adjustments for Game 3. Find opportunities. Find
holes. Be aggressive, be assertive. He didn't sound worried. He
sounded as if he had been playing playoff basketball all his
life. The question remains: Is Vin Baker a playoff player? The
evidence after two games was inconclusive.