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Suspiciously Good

Dec. 20, 2004
Dec. 20, 2004

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Dec. 20, 2004

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Suspiciously Good

The supersurprising Sonics are off to a torrid start--and doubters (this can't last!) are beginning to believe

Forgive the good people of Seattle if they're not sure what to make of their SuperSonics right now. Some, such as the local sports radio host who last Friday proclaimed them "the most positive story in the history of Seattle sports" have clearly drunk the mochacinno. Others are more hesitant to embrace the team, and who can blame them? After all, these Sonics look suspiciously like the ones who went 37-45 in 2003-04 and were a consensus pick to miss the playoffs this season. Yet through Sunday their 17-4 record was second in the NBA only to the Phoenix Suns' 17-3. If one morning you started up the minivan and it drove like a Mustang, you'd have a hard time believing it too. ¶ The evidence is compelling, however, that these Sonics won't fade away. Just listen to the vanquished. After the Sonics dumped the Mavericks 107-102 in Dallas last Thursday--the night after snapping the San Antonio Spurs' 21-game home winning streak 102-96--there was a lot of head-shaking in the losers' locker room. Seattle swamped Dallas with a torrential offense, jacking 84 shots and hitting 10 of 23 three-pointers, in essence out-Mav-ing the Mavs. "You don't want to get into a shootout with them," said Dallas guard Jason Terry, letting out a long, low whistle. "They're deadly from all over."

This is an article from the Dec. 20, 2004 issue Original Layout

Guard Darrell Armstrong appeared to be in shock as he looked over the final box score. "They just kept firing," he murmured, "and firing ... and firing."

Added swingman Josh Howard, "They can pass, they can shoot, they got guys who aren't going to quit. They fo' real."

Or are they, the suspicious Sonics fans wonder, remembering the team's 8-2 and 6-2 starts the past two seasons? After all, only two nights after completing their Texas two-step, the Sonics took the floor at Key Arena against the persistently mediocre Boston Celtics. Emboldened by a nearly full house and the presence of local baseball hero Ichiro Suzuki--who appeared in some sort of pleather rock star getup--they launched an assault on the rim. Or rather, at it. Seattle shot a jarring 32.6% and lost its first home game 98-84. "I just wish," Sonics forward Danny Fortson said with a grin while appraising his teammates, "that one of you mother------- could have made a shot."

Fortson's comment, profane if not profound, is at least on point: Outside shooting is what makes Seattle tick. Led by Ray Allen (40.7% from three-point range at week's end), Rashard Lewis (39.1%) and Vladimir Radmanovic (40.8%), the Sonics were averaging a league-high 39.9% from behind the arc while shooting 79.3% from the line (fifth best) and averaging 100.7 points (also fifth). But is a team that relies so heavily on marksmanship worthy of the praise lavished by Mavs coach Don Nelson (who calls the Sonics "the new bully of the West") and his Portland Trail Blazers counterpart Maurice Cheeks ("I could see Seattle or Phoenix making the Finals")? A team that lost its glue player, guard Brent Barry, to the Spurs in free agency? A team that has a lame-duck coach as well as seven players in contract years? A team that lost to the Los Angeles Clippers by 30 on opening night--which, as omens go, is like a marathoner needing a breather in the first mile?

Well, yes, once you factor in Frodo and the Samurai.

on the flight home last spring after the final game of 2003--04, coach Nate McMillan listed his ideal starting lineup were the new season to begin the next day. Recalls McMillan, "I decided right there that my point guard was going to be Luke Ridnour."

As a rookie out of Oregon last year, Ridnour suffered from inconsistent shooting (41.4%) and wavering self-confidence, and his minutes fluctuated accordingly (34 one game, a DNP-CD another). Fans knew him mainly because of his floppy hair, which along with his boyish looks and slight build--a spindly 6'2", he gained 10 pounds over the summer to bulk up to 175--earned him the nickname of Frodo. His contributions this season, however, have been more like those of Frodo's tireless helper, Samwise Gamgee. A native of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Ridnour grew up playing on the same courts where John Stockton lofted jumpers, and he displays a Stocktonian facility for distributing the ball. It was this quality, along with his speed, that excited McMillan, who says he saw Ridnour as "an extension of me."

So this season, with a more poised (and, sadly, more close-cropped) Ridnour at the helm, the Sonics are a running, slashing team that rarely if ever posts up. Their offensive system is predicated on motion, back screens, quick passes and forays to the basket by Ridnour and backup point guard Antonio Daniels that free up the team's sharpshooters--whom McMillan likes to see launch from inside the arc as well. After a 103-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 16, he was peeved that the Sonics had hit as many threes (18) as twos. "We can shoot the three, but that's not the game plan," he says. "We're an attacking team. I tell my guards, If you stop attacking, I'll take you out."

This leads to yet another unlikely aspect of the Sonics: They're better off without Barry. Though he was a team leader as well as a superb passer and shooter, Barry, like Allen, preferred to hang on the perimeter, which meant the backcourt had no one adept at the drive-and-kick game. Had Barry stayed, it also would have been tougher to find minutes for Ridnour, who has gained confidence (9.1 points per game, 5.8 assists and 40.9% from downtown at week's end) in part because he knows he'll get playing time. "It's tough to keep five guards happy," says G.M. Rick Sund. "When we lost Brent, it solved that problem."

The Sonics also made another addition by subtraction when guard Flip Murray, the darling during last season's hot start, went on the injured list after playing only nine minutes in this season's opener. (He returned to active duty last Saturday.) Though a gifted scorer, Murray is a Sam Cassell--style guard: Hold the ball, hold the ball, shoot the ball. Last year his reluctance to share the rock led to some tension, in particular with Barry. In this season's crisp-passing, European-flavored offense there is no place for me-firsting. McMillan has made clear: If Murray won't fit in, he will be sittin'.

The team's early success has also been the product of a clear offensive pecking order, which is as follows: Allen (23.8 points per game), then Lewis (21.0), then everybody else. That everybody else includes Fortson, he of the Belushi-esque samurai sideburns and ponytail. Acquired from Dallas for center Calvin Booth in an off-season trade, he embodies the Sonics' new ethos of muscularity in the paint: They ranked second in rebounding differential through Sunday (+3.2 per game) after finishing 26th a year ago (-3.4). Fortson rumbles around the half-court offense like a bumper car, slamming into opponents as he sets (occasionally legal) screens to spring shooters. He then plows toward the basket, where he has an uncanny knack for timing offensive rebounds, which he either tips in or otherwise takes to the hoop in the least graceful manner possible--think construction worker attempting a jeté--usually drawing a foul. (Not a bad thing, since in addition to averaging 6.8 rebounds in only 18.4 minutes at week's end, he was shooting 85.5% from the line.)

Fortson's frontcourt mates, Reggie Evans, Nick Collison and Jerome James, are equally ungainly. They flail, they fall, they cut through the D with all the ease of a blunt knife through sirloin. But they board a lot, shoot judiciously and provide constant defensive intensity. "Those big guys," says Allen, "are the key to the whole thing."

The Sonics' offense is a beautiful symbiosis between goons and shooters. In the first quarter against the Mavericks, Fortson went for an offensive board and then tumbled to the ground in a heap with Dallas forward Alan Henderson. While the Mavs cleared the rebound, Fortson got his leg tangled up with Henderson's--accidentally, of course--pinning him to the ground and causing Nelson to turn red in anger. When a Mav misfired at the other end, Ridnour sent the ball the length of the court to the slow-to-rise Fortson, who, despite having a one-on-one, kicked it back out to a trailing Radmanovic, who drained a wide-open three-pointer. Total team ball.

The Sonics' softness in recent years was hard to accept for McMillan, who as a Seattle guard from 1986 to '98 was known for his defensive tenacity. Forced last season to resort to trapping, he now uses the speedy Ridnour to harass opposing point guards--another reason he's starting--and a rotation of bigs, all of whom, as Allen puts it, "know how to use their fouls." These Sonics can extend, pressure the ball and play better weakside D. "We were always able to score, but last year we weren't playing any defense," says Lewis, who fingers himself as one of the culprits. "Instead of taking two, three games off, now I'm coming out every night. This year everybody's buying into it."

The start has been redemptive for McMillan, who had been in danger of losing his job for the better part of a year. (His contract expires at the end of the season, and Sund says the team won't talk about a new deal until then.) A stoic perfectionist, McMillan figured that things would work out if he just stuck to his principles--"playing the game the right way, respecting it and our opponents," as he puts it. McMillan is very close to his older brother Randy, whom he heard from him after the Texas trip. "He's a pretty strong guy," says Nate, "but he was talking, and then the phone went silent. I thought I heard him sniffling. I couldn't believe it. He got emotional because he'd heard his younger brother talk about what he wanted to do and then seen it actually happen. He said, 'They're playing like you.'"

At their best the Sonics are, as Sund calls them, "a combination of the Mavericks and the Pistons," able to shoot, pass and defend. Still, they are a young team--no player is over 30--built to contend in a year or two, not now. The test will come when they lose three in a row or someone is thinking more about his next contract than the teammate who's open in the corner. Even if the Sonics keep their cool, there are other questions. Can a team without an inside presence win in the playoffs? What happens when the shooters go cold?

For now the team and its fans are still getting used to the idea that such questions about the postseason may soon apply to the Sonics. As the Key Arena announcer said somewhat incredulously while the crowd filed out on Saturday, "Thanks for coming to see your Sonics, who are still in first place."

At their best, the 17-4 SuperSonics are, as G.M. Rick Sund calls them, "a combination of THE MAVERICKS AND THE PISTONS," able to shoot, pass and defend.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonFRONT BURNER Allen, among Seattle's oldest players at 29, is spry enough to get out ahead on the break.COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATO (MCMILLAN)IN-NATE DRIVE Long up in arms because his teams didn't mirror his physical style of play, McMillan is thrilled to have the 6'8", 260-pound Fortson (21) underneath.COLOR PHOTO GREG NELSON (FORTSON) [See leadin above]   [See caption above]COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATOHOBBIT FORMING With the Frodo-like Ridnour splitting defenses and dishing, the Sonics' three-point marksmen are getting used to open looks.