On the night Seattle SuperSonics shooting guard Ray Allen scored 45 points to lay waste to the Sacramento Kings in Game 4 of their recent first-round series, he was greeted not by a parade but by a whiff of fetid reality. "Dog took a crap all over the garage floor, pissed all over it," recalls Allen. "I had to get the smell out of the garage at 2:30 in the morning. Then I had to take the trash up the driveway. So nothing changes: It's not like I had some people waiting to do things for me. It's a long driveway, and it's steep." ¬†So, too, is the climb his Sonics were facing on Sunday after losing to the Spurs in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal 103--81. For Allen it was a spectacularly unrewarding day, which began with his learning that he had finished ninth in the MVP balloting despite averaging a career-high 23.9 points and taking what seemed to be a lottery team to its first division title in seven years. Then, early in the second quarter at the SBC Center, the 6'5" Allen got tangled up with San Antonio swingman Bruce Bowen while knifing through the lane and sprained his right ankle, ending his night with eight points. The Spurs immediately set on Allen's teammates like a pack of wild dogs, doing whatever they pleased during an eight-minute, 23--2 run that dropped the Sonics into a 30-point hole. "He means to them what Timmy [Duncan] means to us," said a relieved San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "It was huge that he wasn't there."
The 29-year-old Allen was expected to make a quick return; all indications were that he'd be back no later than Game 3 in Seattle. (Sonics sixth man Vladimir Radmanovic, meanwhile, was unlikely to play in the series after spraining his right ankle in Game 1.) Still, Allen's brief absence put his value to the West's youngest playoff team in sharp relief. Without him on the court, even All-Star forward Rashard Lewis found the going tough, hitting only two of nine shots for four points in the decisive first half. "When Steve Nash doesn't play, they have so many other capable guys," says Spurs guard Brent Barry, referring to the MVP point guard and his top-seeded Phoenix Suns. "The drop-off when Ray doesn't play for Seattle is a lot more significant."
After losing two of four to the Sonics in the regular season and dropping their first-round opener at home to the Denver Nuggets--whom they then beat four straight times--the Spurs approached this Game 1 with a Game 7 mentality. Point guard Tony Parker consistently shredded Seattle's defense for 29 points, while Duncan (22 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks) was vintage Duncan. "We were surprised by the level of intensity in the second round," said coach Nate McMillan, whose Sonics had prevailed in five games against the softer Kings. "The energy and the effort and the scrappy play happens every possession."
The Spurs beat Seattle at its own up-tempo pace while their defense focused on Allen. No surprise there. He had torched them for 24 and 29 points in the Sonics' two regular-season wins, then led all playoff scorers with 32.4 points per game in the opening round. Allen figured Popovich was prepared to give him the works. "Thirty-two points a game?" Allen said last Thursday. "[Even] if he has to send three guys at me, he's not going to let that happen."
Allen's primary impediment was the 6'7" Bowen, whose relentlessly hands-on style had, over the past two years, turned the onetime friends into bitter enemies. The few times Allen was able to elude his nemesis, Bowen responded by pointing ahead to Duncan, who momentarily abandoned his responsibilities inside to force Allen back to the perimeter until Bowen could catch up again. Though the Spurs made their defensive handoffs of Allen look as seamless as an Olympic relay team's, they were the result of extended simulations at practice, during which Mike Wilks and Linton Johnson (neither of whom is on the playoff roster) took turns playing the role of Allen, to the point of exhaustion. "We had guys running around, running off screens, and they were getting winded, so you can imagine how tired Bruce was," says Barry. "We had a number of rotating Ray Allens, and Bruce had to keep going--he didn't get subbed out."
When the Sonics shocked the league by acquiring Allen in a five-player deal that sent 34-year-old Gary Payton to the Milwaukee Bucks in February 2003, Allen had a reputation as a brilliant three-point shooter and not much more. The deal made sense because he was seven years younger than the free-agent Payton, he had two full years remaining on his contract and his gentlemanly bearing seemed a better fit with the regime of new owner Howard Schultz. But the Sonics were also looking for a leader, and Allen, by most accounts, preferred to stay on the perimeter in the locker room as well as on the court. A "Barbie Doll," his former Bucks coach George Karl once called him, who "cares too much about having style, making highlights and being cool."
Allen objected to Karl's characterization, but he didn't make much of an effort to assert himself as a leader until last summer, when Schultz challenged him to prove he was worthy of a long-term extension. Allen responded by inviting teammates over for dinner, developing a friendship with second-year point guard Luke Ridnour during summer cycling excursions, and arranging get-togethers such as karaoke night and a team visit to Universal Studios in Orlando. After starting center Jerome James, a 29-year-old underachiever, averaged 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds against the Kings (up from 4.9 points and 3.0 boards during the regular season), he credited his co-captain's steadfast support. Allen had persuaded James to tone down his after-hours revelry and to stop reading what the newspapers said about him--and had forged other strong bonds on the team. "I haven't once slept on a plane ride because we're all talking, playing cards, laughing and cracking on one another," says James. Alas, the combination of Duncan's defense and Allen's absence brought him back to earth Sunday, when he produced only four points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
Even more ominous than the series-opening loss was the possibility that Allen may be on his way out of Seattle as a free agent this summer. Talks between his agent, Lon Babby, and G.M. Rick Sund broke down in February, after Seattle offered a five-year, $75 million deal and Allen demanded $5 million more in incentives. Both sides have reason to make a deal: Allen may not be able to reap as much money under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement anticipated for next season, while the Sonics won't be able to replace Allen's blend of talent and leadership. "At no point have I been angry with this organization," Allen says. "We have to honor what we signed, and my contract doesn't give me a right to say 'trade me' or 'I'm not coming to camp this year.'"
If Allen's professionalism set a vital example on a team with seven free agents, it was his marksmanship in the final minutes of tight games that put the Sonics over the top. "Most players get the ball and rush, but you should rush to the ball to the right position, then take your time when you get the ball," he says. "I don't really need to see the basket because I know where I am on the floor. The basket doesn't move. Even if I have my back to it, I can just turn around and shoot. I'm going to adjust once I'm in the air."
Sitting in a folding chair on the Seattle practice court last week, Allen demonstrated his shooting grip, cradling the ball softly with his fingertips as if it were made of eggshell. Though it's not a fundamentally sound technique because his shooting hand (his right) is slightly off-center, he compensates by splaying his long index and middle fingers directly behind the ball when he shoots. On most shots his fingers instantly find and grip the seams before he fires. Still seated in his folding chair while nodding toward a basket 35 feet away, he asked, "What's the chance of me making this right here?"
One in three, someone said. "He won't hit the rim," shouted backup guard Antonio Daniels as he approached from the far side of the court.
Allen rocked back in the chair, lifting his right foot and then slamming it down for leverage as he released. The ball spun like a golfer's wedge shot before ricocheting off the edge of the backboard. Daniels retrieved the ball. "One in three," Allen repeated, and his next attempt hit the side of the rim.
The third shot flew over the head of the momentarily distracted Daniels, who missed the result. "Did he make that?" Daniels said. "Did he make that?"
Make it he did. A swish from a folding chair at 35 feet. Now, for his next trick all he has to do is shake off an ankle sprain, get free against a defense designed to contain him, bury most of his open looks and lead his callow team to an upset of a two-time NBA champion. Give Ray Allen and Seattle a shooter's chance.