With all the talk of houses last week, it was hard to tell whether the Denver Nuggets and the Seattle SuperSonics were involved in an NBA Western Conference opening-round playoff series or a Realtors' convention. There was the House of Mutombo, which is not the name of a Denver big-and-tall men's store, although it ought to be; it's actually McNichols Sports Arena, where 7'2" Nugget center Dikembe Mutombo, the league's leading shot blocker, swats 'em away. Then there was the "Not in our house" warning that the Sonics, who won 37 of their 41 regular-season home games, and their fans issue to any opponent who dares enter the Seattle Center Coliseum with hopes of a victory.
But last Saturday, Mutombo rented space under the basket in the Sonics' house and blocked eight shots, and the rest of the No. 8-seeded Nuggets barged in, raided the refrigerator, put their feet up on the coffee table and grabbed the remote control. They knocked the top-seeded Sonics out of the playoffs with a 98-94 overtime win in Game 5 of the best-of-five series, a result that made it clear that this postseason is now an open house. Step right in and look around, you Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks (who staved off another No. 8-shocks-No. 1 upset by beating the scrappy Miami Heat 102-91 in their Game 5 on Sunday). Don't be shy, you Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets. The NBA title is up for grabs, and with the Sonics, who had the NBA's best regular-season record (63-19), out of the bidding, there has never been a better time to buy.
Denver, which was a mere 42-40, became the first No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed since 1984, when the NBA adopted its current playoff format. And in the stunned silence of the Seattle locker room after Game 5, if you listened closely you could almost hear Phoenix forward Charles Barkley laughing in the distance. Barkley and the Suns watched the Sonics' demise on television in Houston, where the next day they would open their Western Conference semifinal with a 91-87 win over the Rockets, and raucously rooted the Nuggets on. "Nate McMillan and Shawn Kemp [of the Sonics]," Barkley chortled. "We don't have to worry about them now, do we?"
Well, no, but someone had better start worrying about the Nuggets, who advanced to a second-round meeting with the Jazz, first-round winners over the San Antonio Spurs. Seattle obviously didn't concern itself enough with Denver, especially after winning the first two games of the series at home by an average of 17 points. "The first game [a 106-82 Sonic victory] was a throwaway," said coach Dan Issel. "It might have worked to our advantage because Seattle might have thought it was going to be a short series." But Denver recovered with two wins at McNichols before shocking the Sonics in Game 5, aided by 23 points from Robert Pack, its dynamic backup point guard.
"No bookie, no bettor, no armchair quarterback, no 76-year-old grandmother sipping Metamucil in a nursing home could have thought this would happen," said forward Brian Williams, who contributed 17 points and 19 rebounds in the decisive win and distinguished himself throughout the series as the most quotable Nugget. After the Game 1 loss in which he, Mutombo and forward LaPhonso Ellis combined for only 14 rebounds, Williams declared, "I'm going to put some cayenne pepper in Dikembe's and LaPhonso's pregame meals. I'm going to get them mad and hot."
Williams also provided a few inspirational words before the fifth game, when he reminded his teammates of Villanova's upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game. "I should have popped him in the mouth for that," said teammate Reggie Williams, who played for those Hoyas.
Brian Williams would no doubt have preferred that to a pop in the mouth from mountainous Georgetown coach John Thompson, who made an appearance at Game 5 to support ex-Hoyas Mutombo and Reggie Williams. Thompson's presence was appropriate, because there is a collegiate feel to the Nuggets—the youngest team in the NBA—as well as to these playoffs. With the lower seeds (Denver, Indiana and Utah) winning three of the eight first-round series, this could pass for the NCAA tournament. Maybe that's why when Issel and Denver athletic director, uh, general manager Bernie Bickerstaff talk about their players, they often sound as if they're referring to a bunch of guys taking freshman English.
"I don't think our kids knew they were supposed to be nervous," Issel said after Game 5. Or maybe they knew that on life's list of things to worry about, basketball games rank well below clinical depression, Tourette's syndrome and the lesser but equally career-threatening problem of being held in low esteem by NBA executives. Members of the Nuggets have confronted all of those obstacles. Brian Williams went to Denver last August in a trade after two years with the Orlando Magic. There, during his second season, he had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Williams was suffering from clinical depression, which is now being treated with medication and counseling. Against Seattle, "things were very dark at one point, very dark," Williams said. "After we got behind 2-0 in the series, I was just thinking that if I can come back from what I came back from, we can come back from this."
Williams found inspiration in guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was the Nuggets' leading scorer in the regular season despite suffering from Tourette's syndrome. Tourette's causes its sufferers to make involuntary sounds, and causes tics and other involuntary movements (Abdul-Rauf's condition is being controlled with medication). Abdul-Rauf wasn't much of a factor against the Sonic defensive traps, averaging only nine points a game, but Pack picked up the slack. "When Robert comes into a game, something is going to happen," says Issel. "Sometimes it's something wonderful, sometimes it's something not so wonderful, sometimes it's something just, well, strange."
Wonderful: With the score tied at 82 with about nine seconds left in regulation in Game 4, Pack stole the ball from Sonic point guard Gary Payton.