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."